Frank Klepacki is the musical shining light behind possibly the most successful strategy gaming series ever: Command and Conquer. Currently audio director at Petroglyph Games, he’s been responsible for scoring many excellent other games including Blade Runner, Star Wars: Empire At War, and the Lands Of Lore series, while still finding the time to record many acclaimed solo albums. His current project is Petroglyph’s upcoming MMORTS, End Of Nations.
Hello Frank, how the devil are you?
Doing great thanks, ramping up for the barrage of tunes I'm unleashing for the holiday season. ;)
Most people know you for the C&C soundtracks, which were pioneering as some of the first real non-MIDI audio in games - how has your workflow as a composer changed as technology has advanced so much in a short space of time? For these early works, how much was synthesized and how much was actual audio recording?
The most interesting tech thing I can tell you about that time period was that before audio became something viable to use through computers as we know of today, back then they were only capable of MIDI unless you chained MIDI clocks to something like ADATs to record audio on. The problem there though, was that if you committed to recording audio, you had to re-record everything if the composition needed a change in arrangement. And being that changes are often asked for, I preferred to have the song always be flexible for that. So I abandoned the use of recorded audio to any kind of tape, and instead used samplers to their max capability by recording audio phrases into them so they could be played and repeated at any point and easily change with the arrangements as I saw fit. That became my workflow for the longest time until DAWs became more prominent and useable on a single machine.
You initially played drums in a band – was the opportunity to join Westwood a bolt from the blue, or had you already inclinations of doing soundtrack work? These days, how do you split your time between working on soundtracks and your various other music projects?
I was introduced to Westwood and game development in general by being a tester. That opened my eyes to the idea of having a career in audio or art at the time, I could have gone either way. Ultimately I chose music and audio. As far as managing my time, I work full time at Petroglyph so game work is all done there. When I'm at home on my own time, I dabble in my various side projects until they get to a point where I feel they're done and ready for release.
Video game soundtracks have vastly expanded in scope and are getting a lot more recognition these days as the generation who played them grows up and become musicians and composers themselves, and video game concerts / cover bands are becoming more de rigeur. You’ve played at a couple yourself; do you get a kick out of the crowd response to your work?
Who wouldn't? (laughs) I think it's awesome that game soundtracks are celebrated in the various ways they are, and it only shows that people are passionate about it and it's as viable as any other form of entertainment, and an important part of our culture.
Are you much of a gamer? Do you have a fave classic game, or classic game soundtrack?
Sure! I don't get to play as many as I'd like, but when I do I always appreciate a good gaming experience. Favorite classic arcade game is 720 Degrees. Favorite soundtrack was Unreal Tournament.
Can you give us a brief kind of breakdown on how you approach a new project from idea to demoing to finished product? Do you have a favourite bit of kit or studio gear?
Ideas usually start with melody and bass-line, or an initial rhythm to the piece. I start building on it from there, figure out where it should go, change keys, instrument choices, chord progressions, etc. until I get the whole arrangement temporarily sketched out, and then make more of the final decisions once it feels like it’s filling out well enough. Must-have studio gear for me is Cubase, Kontakt, and my signature Tagg guitar & bass.
The soundtracks for the C&C series gel really well together as a whole, how much of this was intentional? Did you know at the time of the first game there would possibly be sequels down the line?
Well the first one had a teaser at the end for a sequel so there was an idea, so I initially thought the sequel would be a continuation of the first, instead they switched gears to Red Alert. It was intentional to keep the music cohesive regardless of the time it took place, because it's centered around more of the over-the-top technology you progress to and use with the units, so it worked.
You’ve worked on games based on films, including Blade Runner and Star Wars, creating scores which skilfully emulate the film’s original composers. For Blade Runner in particular you had to recreate Vangelis’s pieces by ear – was this a particularly challenge? Was it imposing to have to follow up these iconic scores?
Yes and yes! It was a challenge to sit there and pick apart every last detail and exact synth sound used and then re-perform / record it as closely as possible to sound just like the selections that were chosen from the film. One main differences many noticed though, was that the sound was very clean because it was all done with digital gear of the late '90's vs the analog recordings of the originals in the ‘80’s. That exercise gave me whole other level of respect for Vangelis' brilliance.
Your current project is upcoming MMORTS End Of Nations, what kind of sounds can we expect from it?
Live orchestral and choral performances, with my signature progressive rocktronic style mixed in with it! I'm very excited about it and consider it some of my best work to date.
Would you have any advice or suggestions for people who might want to get their music used in a game? Any nuggets of wisdom you’ve gleaned over the years?
- Quality has got to be there, has to sound like what's currently out there right now.
- Network, attend game conventions, talks on the subject, get a feel for things.
- Start small with indie devs or mod communities, get in some experience with working with teams, how the audio gets plugged into the game as to have a better understanding of approach to composing for it.
- If you pursue in-house positions, maybe start as an intern, or junior position, if you're freelance then prepare to chase work more than doing it at first until you establish enough clients.
- Don't just pursue 'games’, pursue all media! Composing knows no bounds or formats.
Everyone knows about your soundtracks but some might not know you are the voice of the C&C commando and you appear as a solider in some of the cut scenes – any other examples of acting / dialogue/ foley work you have done?
Sure, I've done voices for Lands of Lore, Dune 2 and Dune 2000 as House Harkonnen, some of the voices in Star Wars: Forces of Corruption, and currently I've had a chance to showcase my widest range of character voices in Rise of Immortals: Battle For Graxia, where I'm about seven characters or so.
Both as audio director at Petroglyph and during your tenure at Westwood, how much interaction / feedback is there between you the composer and the team actually making the game?
Quite a bit actually - while I do have control over the music and audio direction, I do interact with the teams on regular basis even if it's primarily the leads or producers, and make decisions or changes in response to the feedback from them. I'm always open to trying things out but most importantly you have to adapt to the game design as it comes together, and perhaps changes direction even at times.
You have a plethora of music projects on the go, and your solo albums have always retained that ‘rocktronic’ (patent-pending) feel, but your last album Viratia was a bit different, tell us a bit about it.
Viratia was written with my own comic book story in mind - so the music had a reason and a purpose and it was to accompany that. I hired fantastic artist Mark Molnar to do all the artwork and bring it to life. The comic was actually the insert of the physical CD, and its available digitally through my website only, the comic portion unfortunately didn't get included in the digital download services like iTunes and such which is a shame, but nothing I could do about that. Main point of it all was to be creative and have fun though. It was probably closer to Tiberian Sun in style / approach, with more gloomy ambient style tracks in it.
Some of your work is available on iTunes but increasingly game composers are releasing their works on indie platform Bandcamp to reach a wider audience directly, with funds going directly to the artists – is this something you would consider? A complete C&C retrospective would be nice!
Well the game publishers control the rights to the soundtracks, the C&C stuff is available on all the major digital sites even though it's not quite everything. A ultra complete set is something the fans ask me about all the time so I hope one day it all gets released officially. Otherwise, I think composers out there should release as much of their own music independently as they can. I was just discussing this with a fellow composer the other day. There's plenty of other uses for your music if it didn't get used in a game, or was a pitch that fell through, release it and try to license it as many other ways as you can. Why not? If it's good quality, someone will find value in it - they just need to hear it to be able to decide!
So endeth the interview! Thanks to Frank for answering our probing questions!
PS: When I started getting into electronic music, I can honestly say it was because I wanted to emulate Frank's tunes, so getting this interview was very special for me. As a little thank you, I've done a cover of the C&C tune that kicked off my musical journey - thanks Frank!