Gaming for Grown Ups
23rd July 2012 12:00:00
Posted by Steven McCullough

Interview - Steve Burke

Steve Burke is a freelance game music composer with over 11 years experience in the video games industry. Previously working at Rare Ltd. in England for nine years, Steve has worked on many video game projects for Nintendo, Microsoft, and also smaller independent developers. He was gracious enough to answer a few questions on his work and the process of bringing music to games!

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Only kewl doods need apply.

Did you always want to make music for games? Did you ever want to be a traditional composer, or be in a band?

I'd always been interested in game music, right back from the early days of music on Commodore 64 and Amiga games. Those were the most impressionable games for me, and it was a time when I'd buy a game because of the composer attached to it. I studied the piano since around 10 years old, and joined orchestras playing the clarinet and tenor saxophone, and overall my musical background was more classical than playing in a band. I went to study music at King's College London, and it was around that time that I really became interested in composing. After the three years studying a broad range of music courses there, I took my Masters Degree at the Royal College of Music, studying composition and orchestration. That was great, and a really focused course that allowed me to write for orchestra, conduct, orchestrate, and score student film projects.

After all those studies I went on to be an assistant to film and TV composer, Guy Michelmore. Those two years were a fantastic opportunity to see how the media music industry works. Then in 2000 I picked up a copy of computer game magazine, Edge, and a job advert in there eventually led to me working as a composer and sound designer at Rare Ltd. from 2001 until 2009.

Rare have a reputation for releasing some of the most fondly remembered games ever; what was it like working there?

Loved it! The offices are set in scenic countryside in the Midlands, UK. It was a big contrast to the life I'd been living in London, with all the commuting and traffic. I could drive to work down a quiet country road, living only ten minutes away from the office. What made it fun for me was the friends I had there, and the freedom to create what I thought worked best for the game. They encouraged everybody to create something new, not to always follow what was out there already. My office had all the music gadgets and software that I'd ever need to write the music, and whenever there was a need for a musician or singer, the main recording studio was on the same corridor. On some projects we'd hop on a plane and record an orchestra in Prague, or voice over actors in LA, or even gunshots in Boise, Idaho.

Music technology has come a long way in the past decade; how has your composing setup changed over the years? Do you have a fave bit of kit?

It seems to becoming more compact for the computer based studios. I remember when first starting with my studio at Rare, there was a couple of Gigastudio sampler computers, a Roland JV-2080 (plus orchestra/world/percussion boards), Akai S5000, Yamaha 01V mixer, and my main music workstation PC running Cubase. By the time I left in 2009, it was all running on a single Mac Pro, and a whopping secondary hard drive hosting the Kontakt sample libraries, Native Instruments Komplete, slaved to Cubase internally.

More recently, I scored the Xbox Avatars, 10 minutes of music that comes pre-installed on all of the Xbox 360's dashboard (over 66 million Xbox's) using only my trusty MacBook Pro and Cubase with a MIDI keyboard. Now I have several computer systems for composing, depending on the size of the project and where I'm working. The latest game I wrote music to, Fable Heroes, I used a Mac Mini Server (Quad-core, i7, 8GB memory, 256GB SSD system drive, 1TB 7200rpm sample drive), with a secondary computer (i7 PC with all the trimmings) linked via gigabit through Vienna Ensemble Pro 5, for sample playback duties. Everything running from my host sequencer, Cubase 6. That's for the writing part, and then I'd take the individual instrument stems for each track to a mixing/mastering studio for compression, EQ, reverb, and mastering. The speakers there cost over 30k dollars, and they have some fantastic mixing rooms all running through ProTools.

Favourite bit of software would be Cubase 6, a very reliable and powerful music sequencer. For hardware, actually I'm very impressed with the Mac Mini Server i7 quad-core, which is so tiny/quiet and works great with the Apogee Duet 2 audio interface. That's for my portable music studio, but it's so good, I might bring it into my main writing room.

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Tools of the trade.

Stylistically your work is very varied; Kameo & Fusion Genesis are very sweeping & orchestral, whereas Skysmash is jaunty & military, and Jetpac is deliberately fun & retro. Do you have a preferred style of writing, or do you take each project as it comes, regardless of genre?

The large scale orchestra and choir score for Kameo is probably the closest to my personal favourite style of writing. There were around 80 players in the orchestra, and a 40 piece choir on that game. The rest of the score was a combination of MIDI sample based music and some singing by friends at Rare. Jetpac Refuelled was the first XBLA game I scored some time around 2007, and it's interesting to see how the XBLA games have evolved since then. I was limited to about 5 mins of music in that game, any more and it would have taken up too much memory. Recently, a game such as Fusion Genesis (XBLA) I wrote around 1hr 20mins of music, and for Fable Heroes (XBLA) over 30 mins. The downloadable digital distribution games are definitely catching up to the boxed games, in terms of the amount of content they now have.

Is there a piece you've written which you're particularly proud of?

I think Hero’s Theme from Kameo: Elements of Power is the one I'm most proud of. Big orchestra and choir track, with the main theme I wrote for Kameo, it's used on the battlefield when you defeat the Trolls. It's on the soundtrack CD, and if you have a quick search around on YouTube, you might stumble across the Army Of The Pharaohs "Spaz Out" track from their Unholy Terror album. It's a hip-hop reworking of my orchestral track (naughty lyrics alert), and strangely enough it's sparked a bit of a C Walk craze with dozens of videos of people strutting their funky stuff the hip hop track.

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Getting the right mix of elements.

You've received a lot of plaudits for your Kameo score, with several reviewers stating it's as good as any 'proper' film score. Indeed, we're starting to see major Hollywood composers starting to write for games. How do you think the medium of game OSTs has changed in the past few years, and how does it compare to writing for film or TV?

The golden age of game music for me is still those incredibly memorable soundtracks from the Amiga and Commodore 64 days, and the classic Nintendo games. I sometimes listen to game music soundtracks these days, but mostly I still love listening to film soundtracks. That's something I remember from my days at Rare, a fellow composer there, Grant Kirkhope was absolutely right when he said that the music in games should be catchy themes and making them as memorable and tied in to that game as you can. Whenever I have the chance to write a theme for a character or main title, that's the most satisfying part about composing music for video games.

You also have done voice acting & sound design for various games; do you find this a different challenge to composing?

At Rare, probably around 50% of my time was spent composing music, and the rest creating sound effects and character voices. These days I'm focusing on the music composing, only occasionally dabbling in sound design. The sound effects are quite a technical thing to do, especially when sounds are triggered based on physics (velocity, object material, variations, etc.). They take a long time to implement and balance, and it's actually a lot of fun to create a world of sound entirely from small samples triggered through game events. Voicing characters are, well, I lost my voice for nearly three days creating the Troll sounds on Kameo. If you've got an Xbox 360, go to the Customize Avatar from the dashboard, press in the right Thumb Stick and push it up/down/left/right for different pitched burps. That's me, a can of fizzy pop, and a microphone.

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Trust us folks, it's all very technical.

How does your role in a project typically pan out?

It varies a lot. Ideally it would be best to be brought on to the project early in development, in that way I can have more input into how the music is used. As well as writing the music, I also help to create a list of what music cues would be needed and how they would be triggered and interact with each other. Other things I can help out with are some idea of how long tracks could be, so they don't become repetitive on areas of the game that you play a long time, and any other things that a game Producer might have missed out on their asset list. When I start writing music, I'll sketch out initial ideas in shorter tracks of around a minute in length, and see which ones are working best in the context of the game before fully orchestrating and expanding those tracks.

Do other departments / teams have any input on what they think the game should sound like, or alternatively does your work ever impact on some other element of the game?

When working in-house at Rare it was usually a discussion with the game Designer and myself that would shape the direction of the music. That was the best solution as there weren't other people with differing views, just the two of us coming up with what we felt worked best. I was always brought on to projects early in development on the games at Rare, and I had a lot of freedom musically. Sometimes other team members such as Art Leads or the Producer would offer their opinion, and as I was friends and respected these guys, I'd take it on board.

Since leaving Rare and working freelance a lot of that still holds true. It's usually the Designer and Producer who I will have most of my contact and feedback from. Once you've established a way of describing the music and what is needed for the game, the whole process flows quickly. Looming deadlines also help.

It's not that often that the music will help to define gameplay or a game design. An example of where the music comes first, and animation later, would be on the Romance Dances in the Viva Piñata games. I'd get an idea of what the Piñata character would look like, and a quick chat with the cutscene animator if they had a particular style of music in mind, such as a Waltz or Kozachok. The duration was set at around 30 seconds for each dance, and I'd write the music, to which the animator would later animate the character dancing in time with the music.

What have you done recently that our readers can check out, and what's next on the agenda?

A game called Fable Heroes from Lionhead Studios on Xbox Live Arcade. I wrote just over 30 mins of music for that game. It's an old school arcadey sounding score, similar to the N64 approach to scoring a beat 'em up. There's a couple of other projects I'm starting on in the coming months, and any updates of projects I'll pop on my website.

From time to time I post tracks that I'm working on, usually via my Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube pages.

There's a few things such as a pitch I made for the Halo games at 343 Industries (unsuccessful, I might add, but it was mostly written as a bit of a fanboy homage to the Halo3 music and later I pitched it to 343i), an alternate Fable Heroes theme tune, some piano music that I've written to accompany photos of the Isle of Man where I grew up, and music from previous games like Fusion Genesis, Kameo, Viva Piñata, Jetpac Refuelled, Xbox Live Avatars, and orchestral tracks recorded with the fine folks in Prague.

Best place to grab MP3's of my video game music would be on the music page of my website.

Thanks guys for inviting me along!

So endeth the interview! Thanks to Steve for answering our probing questions!