Video Games Live and Tallarico interview

Video Games Live

I first encountered video game music twelve years ago, while playing a little game called The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening. The archaic chiptunes of the Gameboy spoke of adventure and heroism, sang of mystical worlds and strange vistas, free for me to explore. And thus I fell in love with game music, for the role it plays in these immersive experiences we all love. At the time I was a strange one; nobody listened to video game music, and through my early teenage years I got all manner of odd looks. I made a few converts, here and there, but I never expected game music to take off or turn into something that could be appreciated by large audiences.

Thankfully, times change. This past March found me and my girlfriend in Woolsey Hall at Yale University, a regal structure that is home to the Yale Symphony Orchestra and a famous 3-story pipe organ. It was a beautiful place, as classical as they come, complete with pillars, murals, and everything else you might associate with a prestigious symphony auditorium. And it was filled with gamers. Filled not only with gamers, but their families, parents bringing their gamer children, relatives of the musicians, and fans of the orchestra in general. Thousands of us, there to witness a spectacular symphonic show celebrating the music of video games.

Video Games Live was founded by renowned gaming composers Tommy Tallarico and Jack Wall. The first of its kind, it tours the world, partnering with different symphonies to present orchestrated game music from a variety of games. The main attraction is the live symphony playing the music, but their shows are spiced up with an enormous screen that displays footage of the game in question. Tallarico himself is a born showman; the audience is not just sitting there watching and listening, he brings people on stage, he tells jokes, and in general he interacts with the crowd to make us feel like participants.

Prior to every concert there is a pre-show festival. Nothing too spectacular, basically just a chance for everyone to mingle, play in a Guitar Hero tournament, enter some drawings, and get pictures taken with some of the cosplayers. The pre-show festival culminates in a cosplay contest, with the winner chosen via audience applause at the beginning of the show. The winner while I was there was a little boy dressed up as Baby Luigi.

The show started off with an eight minute medley of classic gaming tunes, ranging from Duck Hunt and Tetris to Galaga and even Pong, of all things. The announcement that the show would begin with Pong left most of us scratching our heads, seeing as Pong had no music, but they pulled through with edited footage of the game where the bleeps and bloops of the bouncing ball acted as the intro to the medley. I‘m ashamed to admit that I only recognized about half of the games represented here, which illustrates the lengths they went to include a nice variety.

Next we were treated to a pre-recorded video of Hideo Kojima, who told us how he wished he could be there, and then went on to introduce the music of Metal Gear Solid. I’ve never played the games, so I couldn’t tell you exactly which tracks were represented, but I definitely heard the main theme. We also had someone sneaking around the stage in a box, which earned some laughter.

God of War music came next. Of everything at the show, I found this to be the least interesting piece, because I’ve never cared for God of War’s music. As soon as it was over and the music quieted down, Tallarico popped out of the box that he had been hiding in since the Metal Gear Solid piece and launched into the next phase of the show: Space Invaders. He asked for a volunteer from the crowd, and got the biggest response I’ve ever seen to such a request. The lucky volunteer came up, put on a shirt with some sort of motion-sensing technology, and took a wireless arcade controller. He then proceeded to play Space Invaders on the projection screen. He controlled his ship by moving back and forth across the stage, and fired with his controller. While he did so, the orchestra played the music for the game on the fly. There were cash prizes ready to be given out, but the volunteer didn’t quite earn any of them. I found it mind blowing that simply seeing someone play Space Invaders could earn wild clapping and cheering. Of course, they were cheering for Space Invaders more than the guy playing it, which really goes to show how deeply ingrained games are in our culture.

At this point Jack Wall, the co-producer and conductor of the orchestra, took center stage to talk about the next part of the show: music from the Myst series. Jack talked about how the original Myst inspired him, and how honored he was when he was given the chance to compose the music of Myst 3 and 4. This was where the game footage on the screen really began to shine. It was nicely choreographed to match the music they were playing, and they chose some scenes with incredible visuals to match. I never really noticed the music back when I first played Myst and Riven, but they managed to make a great show out of it. This was also the first time that the choir really had to do much work, and they did their job reasonably well.

I had mixed feelings about the next game on display. Not because it was lacking in quality, but because it was Medal of Honor music played with actual footage from World War II. It was a very moving piece, mostly illustrating the sadness of the war with footage of families saying goodbye and soldiers crying. Their reasons for including it in the concert were obvious: to show that video games are capable of true emotional depth and of exploring mature subjects, and they certainly succeeded. I was a bit apprehensive though, and was slightly uncomfortable with the footage at first. I was there to have fun, not to listen to sad music and watch crying families. Curse my overactive empathy! But by the end of the section I was convinced that they had made the right move, and I’m glad that they did it. It certainly made an impact on the audience, heh.

After this came “Baba Yetu”, the main theme from Civilization IV. If you haven’t heard it, it’s worth checking out; the closest comparison I can think of is The Lion King. The original version of the song has African drums and singing in Swahili. The African drums were lost in translation to the orchestra format, but they actually had Ron Ragin, the original singer, there to sing it for us. The whole piece was pretty laidback and cool, with the opening cutscene from Civilization IV playing throughout, and I really enjoyed it. One of the big surprises of the show, and I sought out the track as soon as I got home.

For whatever reason, Final Fantasy 8’s “Liberi Fatali” is always hailed as one of the greatest pieces of gaming music. I’m not too fond of it myself, but I‘m in the minority, so it came up next. Unfortunately, Square Enix doesn’t allow any of the game music symphonies to show footage from their games. It’s because they want to retain exclusive rights for their own shows, if I’m not mistaken. To make up for it, they outdid themselves with the lightshow for this track, using a huge variety of colors and flashes in sync with the music. Even for someone like me, who thinks Liberi Fatali is overrated, it was enjoyable.

Luckily, Liberi Fatali didn’t last long, and what came next made up for it tenfold: the Zelda theme. We got another prerecorded introduction, this time from Koji Kondo, before the music started and we were treated to a montage of various Zelda games. After the first thirty seconds or so it settled exclusively onto Twilight Princess footage. Oddly, all of it was taken directly from the trailers for the game; they must not have the rights to show new footage, because I can’t think of any other reason why they’d stick to pre-release trailers. Regardless, the music was great: the Zelda theme on full orchestra. They didn’t do anything daring with the arrangement, but that suited me just fine.

Once the applause had died down, we were treated to the voice of Solid Snake welcoming Tallarico back on the stage. Tallarico asked for two volunteers to compete in a game of classic Frogger for laptops and other nice prizes. He got a very enthusiastic response, unsurprisingly. No special motion-sensing for this one, just normal controls, but they had the full symphony playing the music in real time. It was a very cool event, all in all. Although the two volunteers were the worst Frogger players I’ve ever seen. Shameful, really, although I’ll cut them some slack for being in front of thousands of people.

Next, we were treated to an absolutely stunning rendition of “Hikari”, the main theme of Kingdom Hearts. This was probably my favorite part of the entire show; the music was incredible, and they combined it with footage from a variety of old Disney movies, which is bound to strike a nostalgic chord in anyone. I am not ashamed to say that I was genuinely moved. Due to Square Enix’s stubbornness, no footage from the game was shown, but that was fine by me, since my attachment was to the Disney side of things. Presenting the movie footage was a stroke of genius on the part of Tallarico and the rest, and doubtless worked wonders on any lingering doubts the non-gamers may have had on gaming music.

I pity anything that had to follow Hikari, but the next piece acquitted itself well. We got a recording from Yuji Naka, before the show launched into a medley of tracks from Sonic the Hedgehog. It was a bit brass-heavy for my tastes, but worth hearing nonetheless. It brought back some fun memories, too.

I admit it: I’m almost as big of a Warcraft fanboy as I am a Zelda one, especially of the RTS incarnations. And Warcraft 3 has the greatest pre-rendered cutscenes of all time, which I occasionally open up and watch when I’m bored. A dubious honor amongst a crowd of Nintendo fans, but there you go. So when the next piece revealed itself to be a 5-minute, seamless medley of Warcraft 3 and World of Warcraft music, with cinematics from the two games to match, I was just about the happiest guy in that theatre. It was a faithful rendition of the music; this was no creative arrangement, but that was fine with me, since Jason Hayes and his colleagues did a fantastic job with the originals. The choir they had with the symphony wasn’t able to pull off some of the deeper-voiced stuff, which was not surprising in the least, but that was the only hiccup. I was nearly shaking at the end of it… a response that got more and more frequent as the concert progressed.

Once the applause had died down, Jack Wall introduced Martin Leung, “The Video Game Pianist.” A few years back Leung released a video of himself playing the Super Mario Bros. theme really fast, and blindfolded to boot. I’m sure many of you have seen and remember it, but if not, you can find it at, under the videos part of the media section. It got roughly 40 million downloads and made him relatively famous in the online gaming community. I also ran into him at E3 this past summer, where he had a piano set up and was taking requests. He wasn’t getting much attention there; most people preferred checking out unreleased games to chatting with the pianist. I talked to him for a few minutes, and he played the Dark World theme from A Link to the Past for me. He has since come up in the world, heh. After Jack Wall finished introducing him, he came out onto the stage and played a 7-minute piano solo featuring a variety of Final Fantasy songs. “To Zanarkand”, “Eyes on Me”, “Liberi Fatali”, “One-Winged Angel”, something I don’t know the name of from FF6, and a number of other tracks got featured. Instead of game footage, they had the screen showing a close-up view of Leung and his playing. Martin isn’t much of a showman, heh; he was quite stiff and obviously self-conscious, but as soon as he sat down to the piano that stiff figure melted down to the skilled player that he is. I wasn’t exactly blown away by this particular medley, simply because a piano solo needs something really special to stand out after listening to a full orchestra, and Leung’s signature speed was being saved for later.

We had a brief break from music for Tallarico to announce the winners of the Guitar Hero competition. He also commented on how many “red lights” he has seeing from video cameras in the audience. He didn’t care, and said that he hoped to see them all on Youtube the next morning. Tallarico’s big on the viral marketing strategy; he encourages people to record the show and put it all up on Youtube, and he often links directly to these videos in press releases on his site. Joe Kozachek (“jkoz”), a friend of mine who I convinced to go to VGL instead of the Play! Symphony in the same city, got the entire show on camera and threw it up on the ‘net. You can probably find his videos and glowing comments pretty easily, but don’t watch too much… the show really loses most of its appeal when you’re viewing it through a low-quality digital camera screen.

Tallarico finally got around to introducing a medley from Advent Rising, which I had been expecting much earlier in the show. Advent Rising is almost universally hailed as Tallarico’s best soundtrack, an opinion I wholeheartedly agree with. I really enjoyed this medley, especially since I had been listening to the soundtrack prior to meeting Tallarico. Most of the footage was of cutscenes from the game, and they looked pretty spoilerific, too. That was unsurprising, since they needed to show some pretty dramatic stuff to accompany that music. Unfortunately, they made the mistake of playing some of the dialogue from the footage to give it a little bit of context. It was probably because few people in the audience had ever played the game, but I think they would have been better off without it. Nevertheless, it was a wonderful piece.

We got the true iconic, nostalgic powerhouse of game music next: Super Mario Bros. Koji Kondo’s talking head popped up again to give us an introduction, and then they jumped into a brass-heavy, extremely fun arrangement of Mario music. The vast majority of the music was from Super Mario Bros. itself, but the footage went through most of the major Mario games and some of the spinoffs. I’m one of those many people who get smiles a mile wide every time he hears Mario music, so I loved this part of the show.

After that was over Martin Leung was ushered out onto the stage once again, where Tallarico talked about accusations that Leung’s original video was faked. He ended with the announcement that they would prove it was real, blindfolded Leung, and set him on the piano. Thus began our Leung marathon. He started out playing numerous Mario themes at high speeds. The most impressive of these was that piano heavy level music from Super Mario World… I wish I knew its name. It plays in a lot of moving-platforms-in-the-air levels, like the one right before the second castle. And then he played the out-of-time fanfare and doubled his speed, which was unbelievable, at least to a piano illiterate like me. After he finished with Mario he went on to assorted Namco tunes, few of which I recognized, and then settled down for some sweet Tetris love. You’ve got to love the Tetris theme. He earned some laughs when he played the Mario out-of-time fanfare and doubled speed again.

I knew we were nearing the home stretch when Tallarico began talking about the world-famous pipe organ behind the stage. I had been wracking my brain trying to figure out what they would be playing that could possibly do it justice. I must say, I felt very stupid when Tallarico announced Castlevania – that should have been obvious. After some banter, he had Leung climb down into the organ, and we were treated to classic Castlevania played on one of the largest organs in the world. Do I really need to say any more? The word sublime comes to mind. I’ve always loved the sound of pipe organs, and it was incredibly cool hearing that huge one fill the theatre. I would have preferred to hear Ganon’s theme, but I have to make concessions to the fact that not everyone is a Zelda fanatic, and this was a worthy substitute.

Once the cheering and clapping had died down and Martin Leung left the stage, Tallarico announced the final song of the concert: the Halo theme. Think what you will of the Halo games themselves, the Halo theme is an incredible piece of music, and I have loved it since the first game came out. They stuck very close to the original music; for the first five minutes, they played music and footage taken from Halo 1 and 2, with a very impressive light-show throughout the whole thing. The choir, which hadn’t impressed me too much in earlier songs, really did this one justice. They finished that, let everything slow down as if they were finished… and then Tallarico came to the front of the stage with an electric guitar, the Halo 3 trailer started playing on the screen, and the symphony started up again. Some nice free advertising for Microsoft and a bit of a deviation from the purely symphonic music we’d had so far, but nobody in the audience cared – it was an incredible show. Goose-bump inducing. And Tallarico knows how to play his guitar. At the end of the day, this rivaled the Kingdom Hearts track as my favorite piece of music at the show.

But wait – that wasn’t the end, as we all knew. There would of course be an encore. A regrettably scripted one that we all knew was coming, but it worked out well enough. Since we couldn’t exactly hold up lighters in the traditional encore fashion, Tallarico asked everyone to get out their cell phones and handheld gaming systems, anything with a lit screen, and hold those up instead. It was a very cool touch that I’ve admired ever since he first started doing it, and I loved looking out over the crowd and seeing thousands of gamers holding up their SPs and DSs. The song they ended the concert on was “One Winged Angel” from Final Fantasy 7. It’s a track that is widely regarded as a quintessential piece of video game symphony, and came as no surprise to anyone there. Like “Liberi Fatali”, I’ve never much cared for it, but I can see how others might, especially those with nostalgia for the game. The choir came through again, doing a great job. Interestingly enough, Tallarico stayed on the stage and played electric guitar throughout the song. I’m not sure that that was the best decision he’s ever made, but he was mostly drowned out by the orchestra so it really didn’t matter.

And thus ended the best show I have ever seen. I’ve been to my fair share of concerts and plays, and everything in between, but none can even begin to compare to the fantastic experience that was Video Games Live. If you only visit one live performance in your lifetime, make it this one, because it is, to put it simply, a damn good show.

As soon as it was over people began to line up for the “Meet and Greet,” where we could meet some of the composers and other big names who happened to be there. At this particular show we got to meet Ron Ragin, the lead singer in Baba Yetu; Tom Salta, who did the music for the Ghost Recon games; Lorne Lanning, the man behind Abe’s Odyssey and other Oddworld games; and of course, Martin Leung, Jack Wall, and Tommy Tallarico himself. A pretty illustrious crowd, although it was small compared to some of the other shows they’ve put on. They had Miyamoto, Koji Kondo, and Alexey Pajitnov (the creator of Tetris) at their San Francisco show, for instance. I got the Jade Empire and Advent Rising soundtracks signed by Wall and Tallarico respectively, and my girlfriend and I got all of them to sign our backstage passes. I asked Tallarico if he’d be willing to get a picture with us, and at the last minute, Wall jumped in too. It certainly made me a happy camper. Moments like these are what make all these years of my gaming journalism hobby worth it.

The show is still gaining momentum, garnering ridiculous hype, awards, and praise from every direction. All of it deserved, I hasten to add. They’re touring everywhere from Brazil, Mexico, and Korea to Washington, Los Angeles, and Montreal. I went to this New Haven show with my girlfriend; we’ll go to both the Boston and Montreal shows as well, and I’ll drag my family with me to one of them if I have to pay for their tickets myself. Tallarico, I salute you: your show has made yet another life-long fan, and I can’t wait to see it again. And if any of you get a chance to do the same… You know what to do


As you may have gathered by now, I had the honor of meeting Tallarico on a more personal basis prior to the main show. I contacted him online several months before the show and talked to him a bit, eventually asking if he would allow me to interview him. He was an extremely approachable guy, and was more than happy to set aside a half hour of his time to talk to me. So I drove to New Haven five or six hours early, picked up backstage passes for me and my girlfriend, and went to meet Tallarico. As anyone who has ever done an interview knows, there is never enough time or space to ask every question you might have, but I managed to get a good lot of them in before he had to leave to help set up show. And he’s a very experienced interviewee, which made the process a whole lot easier on me. And so, without further ado, I present to my interview with Tommy Tallarico.

Max Nichols: You’ve been in the industry for a long time; how would you say it’s changed since you first started?

Tommy Tallarico: Well, when I first got involved in 1990 the first game I worked on was Prince of Persia, the original Prince of Persia. Back then it was just a bunch of bleeps and bloops. The technology really limited what we could create, and how we could create it. Then in the mid 90s, 94ish, CD-ROMs came out as a storage medium and all the walls were broken down. And we were now able to create real music and use live musicians and use live orchestras, and that’s when the quality really started to change.

Max: What was the first CD-ROM game you did the music for?

Tommy: That was the Terminator, on the Sega CD. And that was actually the very first video game to ever use a live guitar, in… 1993.

Max: Which of your soundtracks are you the most proud of?

Tommy: I would say Earthworm Jim was a really fun one, also from ’93, ’94. The original Tony Hawk Pro Skater, which drove that genre crazy, was fun to work on. Metroid Prime, I’m proud of the sound design and stuff we’ve done for that. Spider Man, just because I was such a huge Spiderman fan. But from a musical standpoint, probably Advent Rising, where I used a seventy-two piece Union Orchestra in Hollywood, all the same people who do all the movie scores, recorded on the Paramount Picture stage, had an academy award-winning engineer and mixer and an Emmy award-winning conductor. I wrote it as a 13th century Italian opera, something that I always wanted to do my whole life. So for me that was, musically, one of my favorites.

Max: Yeah, no surprise there, that game had a really great soundtrack. Do you have a preference for what sort of games you like to score, genre-wise, or…?

Tommy: Yeah you know, I like the action-adventure stuff, because it’s more in-your-face foreground music as opposed to… you know a lot of RPGs, or MMOs, with hundreds of millions of hours of gameplay, where the music has to be more in the background, ambient almost. I like more action-adventure, in-your-face kinda deals.

Max: That makes sense. Have you ever written a piece that you felt was really great, you loved it, but it just wasn’t suitable for the game you were making?

Tommy: No, I always put them in (laughs). Even if it doesn’t make sense in the game I still get it in there. Because there are a lot of people who may say “well the music has to match exactly what the thing is or else it’s not working…” I have a different opinion and theory on all that. I want people to remember the music. As a composer, if the level sucks, but the music’s great, it will help them to think the level’s better, you know. And I want the person to want to get to the next level just to hear the next piece of cool music. That’s my goal. I’ve been involved with some games, Terminator on the Sega CD being one of them, Skeleton Warriors is another one, and even Advent Rising itself, where people thought the game wasn’t that great but they remembered the music. So if I wrote the music as to what I felt of the level or the game every time, some of my greatest soundtracks might have never been. Because you know, I’ve gotta write crappy music because it’s a crappy level (laughs).

Max: I’ve been a huge fan of video game music all my life, but I’ve never really been able to describe why that is. I’ve never been able to say what it is about video game music that’s so special.

Tommy: I’ll tell you (laughs). I’ll tell you why. I think first of all it’s a generation thing, we grew up playing games, they’ve become the anthems of our generation. Super Mario Bros., Sonic, Zelda, those are games and scores that we grew up in, we associate with our childhood, the thing we remember most musically as a kid. There’s Star Wars as well, another big one, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Tron maybe, but no, this is the soundtrack of our generation. The other reason is that video game music gets compared a lot to movie soundtracks. The big difference is that dialogue drives movies. 90% of a movie is dialogue, right, and telling a story. Whereas in games, it’s action, 90% of it is action and 10% of it is story. So the music that is written in games is all big, in-your-face action type of stuff. Whereas music in films, they might have a chase scene here and there or a title theme, but movie music is all in the background. A lot more in-your-face, big, adventure tunes you’ll find in video games, more than anywhere else. So that eventually is going to create some hits.

Max: That actually makes a lot of sense. Next up I have some questions about the actual music development. How early in a game’s development cycle are you brought in to start working on music and sound?

Tommy: Well in the old days we were brought in at the very end, so it’d be like, “oh the game’s over, we have no time, no money, no space left on the cartridge, here, create some sound for it.”

Max: (laughs)

Tommy: And that really sucked. So we quickly changed that, it was one of the things I was very instrumental in. I know early in my career saying to people, “Look, we’ve got to be in there from day one, because these engines that are created, the music engines and the way they stream in graphics or level information affects us in the end. So it’s important that from day 1, when you start thinking of a project, you’ve got to start thinking about the sound and the music first. We’ve got to be hand-in-hand right from the beginning.“ Nowadays it’s very much different, so yes, when a designer starts to sit down and think about a game, the next thing he’ll think about will be the music.

Max: This must have been different in the past, but these days, how closely do you work with the game designers when trying to decide the mood of levels and environments?

Tommy: Every designer’s different, every project is different of course, but a lot of times I’ll just sit down with the designer and we’ll say “what’s the emotion here?” As a composer that’s what I like to talk about, the emotion. Not necessarily the level. “Are we in the jungle level? Oh, let’s try a jungle beat.” I’m more about is it a scary level, or is it a sad level? Is it anticipation, or is it victory? So I deal with emotions when I talk to designers and stuff. For me that’s the best way to go.

Max: How does working with a game that has an established style, like Metroid, differ from a game that’s brand new intellectual property?

Tommy: I actually like working with both. Last year, for example, I did Jaws, so I got to work with all the John Williams music. So it’s already established, all of that… you don’t have to come up with a theme, I just have to take this amazing theme that already exists and do it a bunch of different ways. To me that’s fun, you know, that’s cool. Another game I did last year was Pacman World, World Rally or whatever the hell it’s called.

Max: (laughs)

Tommy: It was a racing game with Pacman, so I got to take all the Pacman, Ms. Pacman, Galaga, Digdug, I took all those and I did a whole bunch of different styles with them. I did rock, blues, and friggin country, every sort of combination, and I think that’s fun. It differs in that the creative onus isn’t so on my shoulders, as much. Which is a nice place to be sometimes.

Max: When you do have to choose a theme for the game, is that something you have to really work hard at?

Tommy: Yeah. Yeah, that’s the hardest thing about creating music, is coming up with that motif as we call them, that theme. Because everything else can follow that; once you come up with a strong theme you can then use that theme in different ways, come up with a slow version, a medium version, a fast version, an action version, and whatever. But coming up with what that initial theme is the toughest part about composing.

Max: I notice you did that a lot in Advent Rising, where the same motifs are definitely very visible throughout.

Tommy: Yeah, we actually had three motifs in Advent Rising, and all three of them are going to be playing here tonight. I put together a six-minute piece of music, and it’s three segments, two minutes each using the three different themes. So, we had one for the humans, which was called the human theme. We had one for the Aurelians, which was the race that defends you and that you befriend, and that was the Aurelian theme; then we had the Seekers, which are the bad guys. So you know, we had our theme, our friend’s theme, and the bad guy’s theme. And so, whenever those things would occur, you’d hear the different themes. So if you’re walking down a hallway and you start to hear the Seeker theme, even though you know there’re no Seekers yet, you’re like “Ooh shit, there’s some Seekers coming up here.” It’s cool that I’m able to control that emotion of the player, before the graphics do.

Max: Usually if I have to write something sad, I’ll listen to sad music to get me in the mood. How do you handle that?

Tommy: Same thing, yeah. If I’m trying to write a sad piece of music I’m listening to like Barber’s Adagio for Strings, or some Beethoven’s Requiem stuff, or whatever. So absolutely, I learn from the masters. When people say “Oh who’d you study under?” I’m like “Beethoven.”

Both: (laughs)

Tommy: John Williams, you know, because that’s who I listen to in order to get inspired. And I don’t rip them off, I see what they do. I listen to Beethoven’s 9th and listen to The Woodlands and how they’re counter melody with the flyer, and how the cello’s working with the violins, and it’s just amazing. And I decipher that, and I figure it out on the keyboard and then I take what I’ve learned from that and use it in my own music. Not necessarily the same notes, but the style and the way that he uses music, it’s unbelievable.

Max: Are there any moods or atmospheres that you find are easier to create than others?

Tommy: You know, creating sad music, because you mentioned sad music, is actually pretty easy. (laughs) Because it’s like, slooow…

Max: Just throw in some violins.

Tommy: …put some high violins in there, some long notes, and you can sit down and write a sad tune pretty easy. But coming up with the big, action-adventure main theme from a game? That might take you weeks.

Max: I’ve been listening to “Greater Lights”, from Advent Rising, a lot recently the past few weeks. Is composing for a vocal track significantly different from composing for a non-vocal track?

Tommy: It is. But you know my background is being in bands, and my cousin is Stephen Tyler from Aerosmith; his real name is Stephen Tallarico. So my whole life I was always in rock bands growing up. I was used to creating songs that had vocals in them. I was very good friends and a big fan of Charlotte Martin, who sang that piece, so we sat down and wrote that song together, using one of the themes, and I loved that. I think it’s great. You wouldn’t want to have it through the whole game, but one song for the end of the credits, based on this theme you’ve created, I loved it and I loved working with Charlotte.

Max: Going in another direction now, what sort of tools do you usually use?

Tommy: Whenever you can use live instruments, that’s the best, but we do a lot of combination of stuff too. Like in Advent Rising, where 80% of it was live while 20% of it was MIDI laid on top. Some of those big percussion things that were happening weren’t live percussion but samples that we were using, so I like to do both. But tools, I’m a PC user, so I use Cakewalk and Sonar a lot for recording my actual MIDI tracks, and I use Vegas a lot, Sony… And Soundforge, to mess with sound design. Things like that.

Max: What are your thoughts on dynamic music, like they had in The Wind Waker?

Tommy: Interactive scores and dynamics in general are great. Getting something big, and then taking it away and getting soft, and big again… Again, mentioning Advent Rising, I do that a lot in that music, where it gets big and then it gets small and then big again, and you know it’s really a tool that a lot of people I think forget about. But as far as interactive dynamically changing music goes, I think it’s awesome. Koji Kondo, the writer of Mario and Zelda is one of the best at it. He’s just amazing.

Max: Have you ever used that sort of technique?

Tommy: Oh yeah sure. The Unreal stuff, I did a lot in Unreal Tournament, Unreal 2. Advent Rising was like that as well, where we recorded the orchestra in a number of different ways; depending on how many enemies were on screen we would cross-fade into different elements of the music. Spiderman was like that. Spiderman was more like rock and techno-electronica style, so we would record the band, and then we would just have the drums, and just have the bass, and then just have the guitar, and we would bleed on different lines so depending on the intensity of the action, sometimes you’d only be hearing the drums and the bass and then we’d bring the guitar in, and then take it out during some songs.

Max: I’m actually really interested in the sound work that you do, not many people seem to talk about it. How do you go about creating the sound effects?

Tommy: Yeah, when we did Tony Hawk Pro Skater, that was me sitting on the skateboard and just recording it. In Metroid Prime I got an interesting story about sound design. Miyamoto actually came to me and he said… well, normally when we create a sound effect they’ll do the art for a weapon, and then they say “Make a sound to this,” to match it. But what Miyamoto did was come to me and say “Look, we want you to create a really cool sound effect, a really cool weapon sound, and then we’ll make the art to whatever you create.” That’s just a little peak into the mind of the genius that is Miyamoto.

Max: Alright, I have one more question I would love for you to answer. There are tons of schools offering formal video game design and art education, but noticeably absent is formal video game music…

Tommy: Oh no, not true!

Max: Oh, really?

Tommy: Fullsail has a whole curriculum that we helped to create, and also Expressions New Media, in San Francisco. There is the non-profit organization that I started six years ago, called the Game Audio Network Guild, the website is You go to, there’re over twelve hundred professional video game composers and sound designers representing over twenty-five countries. And we have scholarship funds for students , over $20,000 in game audio scholarships that we give away. And yeah, we actually work with those people in order to create a curriculum to teach game audio.

Max: I guess you learn something every day. I had no idea.

Tommy: Well now you do!

Max: Well, thanks a lot, it was tons of fun interviewing you.

Tommy: Cool man. I can’t wait for you to see the show tonight.