In this interview we talk with composer, audio director and game audio specialist, John Broomhall, ahead of Game Music Connect which he co-founded with award-winning game and TV composer, John Broomhall.
This year’s Game Music Connect takes place at London’s Southbank Centre on 15th September.
Brief list of credits
Forza Motorsport 5, Transport Tycoon, X-COM
Thank you for taking time to do this interview. Let’s start by introducing yourself and how did you get into game audio?
Hi. I’m John Broomhall and you can find out all about me at my website www.johnbroomhall.co.uk. I’ve been working in the games industry, both in-house and freelance for many years and I’ve been privileged to work on dozens of game titles of all shapes and sizes – and in various roles.
Originally I got into games after responding to an advertisement, and I was offered the appointment following my creating music demos for specific game briefs to demonstrate what I could creatively bring to the company’s products. That rare position was as UK in-house composer at MICROPROSE Software which was at that time a hugely successful American PC game developer and publisher. They were subsequently taken over by Spectrum Holobyte, Hasbro and then Infogrames/Atari. By the time I left them, I was the European Head of Audio.
You have quite an impressive portfolio. How do you prepare for such projects and what aspects do you usually take into account when deciding the musical direction of a project?
Thank you. I’ve been very fortunate to work on some amazing game titles. How I prepare depends on what the job is that I’m going to be doing. But if you are thinking about music composing, then I suppose it’s always a combination of discussion with the team, absorbing game design documents and game briefs and taking inspiration from pre-production artwork and pre-vis videos. This is what informs early prototyping work to establish the right style and instrumentation. But you know, every project is different and sometimes people have a very clear idea indeed of the style and orchestration they require.
What is your usual process for creating audio content for games, films etc?
I suppose you might say there are three aspects for music. The first is an inspirational, very creative job of imagining and experimenting with ideas – musical, rhythmic – and thinking in terms of over-arching themes and motifs that may figure in various guises throughout the project. Then there is what you might call ‘crafting’ all that into actual music cues required (and possibly helping define what those requirements are). And then there’s the recording, mixing and mastering – the sonic finishing of the production.
What was the composing process for XCOM?
I wrote the music for XCOM at a time when technology was very limited. The standard format for PC audio and music was the humble Sound Blaster which for my purposes, was a nine voice FM synthesiser installed in the back of your computer. Even though the music reproduction was primitive by today’s standards, the process I described above still applied and I can remember carefully creating a palette of instrument sounds to work with, and being inspired by watching the Geoscape and Tactical missions for many hours, trying musical ideas against the moving pictures and immersing myself in the vibe of all the subject matter.
Any special stories you could share from the process?
There is one thing that I find very interesting about the Tactical game – which had very simple music – essentially a pulse with a smattering of spooky sounds and musical motifs. For many years, I’ve gotten emails from people around the world saying how atmospheric and dark that music was – how it added to the intensity of their experience of being locked down in combat against a deadly enemy and how the music seemed to fit their experience so tightly e.g. a noise would go off in the music track, seemingly in synchronisation with the in-game action – say, an alien firing a weapon. This is interesting because the music was not interactive so when it seemed to tie in closely with people’s experiences, it was coincidental and it’s surprising that, given the fidelity of the sound was so basic, that it proved so effective.
I’m really delighted about that and I think, in a way, it shows that the power of the idea can be more important than the fidelity of the sound. People have talked about that music making them feel very uneasy and I think this is to do with habituation. The pulse continued at a regular tempo for a certain amount of time. Then I would jolt it up or down by a few bpm. The result was subliminal – but when you create a regular pattern which players get used to – and then you disrupt it (however subtly), it is disturbing – it can be very effective and I think that’s what created the sense of unease.
What were some of the challenges you encountered during the production of Forza Motorsport 5?
Well, working on this title was a very positive experience and a real privilege. Writing interactive music as second composer and as a music supervisor, being involved with the fundamentals of the music implementation and recording process was very interesting and engaging. The icing on the cake was recording at George Lucas’s Skywalker Ranch for a week and subsequently at Avatar Studios in New York. To work with so many talented professionals on one project, was incredible.
Adaptive/interactive music in games has been evolving a lot during the past years. Can you tell us about the different music systems and how did you utilise them?
There’s really too much ground to cover in a short interview like this but a great place for people to start is to check out interactive music tools within the most commonly used middleware – download them – check out the tutorials, and they’ll give you a good oversight. What you also need to think about is not just the ‘how’ of interactive music, but also the ‘why’. Why should there be a change in the music? And what should that change be? What message will it communicate to the player? Is there a chance it might confuse the player? Will it work with the sound design? Once you start to think about those kinds of questions and try and implement such changes, you soon find that one of the key issues is transitions between different ‘states’. It’s a very interesting area and it’s the chief differentiator of music for games from other linear media. By the way, this year’s Game Music Connect will feature an entire session devoted to demonstrating tools and techniques for interactive music.
How much collaboration do you do with the rest of the audio team?
It varies greatly from project to project. On some projects I’ve been completely embedded with the team. On others, I’ve hardly met with them at all. In general though, I think collaboration is a great thing both with the wider game development disciplines – design, art and programming – but also with the other audio people e.g. if you’re writing the music, you should be talking to the sound designers about how the music and sound will work together. These days we have wonderful things like Skype to help communication even you’re working remotely from the team.
This one is for the gear heads. What is your favourite hardware and software right now – virtual instruments, audio processing etc?
I create music in Cubase which I’ve been using going all the way back to the Atari days. It’s developed into a completely awesome workstation. And I guess I couldn’t do my job without Kontakt! I’m a jazz keyboard player so you won’t be surprised to hear I really like ‘Piano in Blue’ and ‘Session Keys Electric R’ – a very nice Rhodes. One of my most recent purchases has been the Slate Digital buss compressors, which I used quite a bit on my last project and I also used QL Spaces a lot. There’s so many great plug-ins, it’s really hard to be specific.
Now let’s talk a bit about ‘Game Music Connect’. How did it all begin, and how does such a conference help an upcoming composer?
Game Music Connect was born out of a professional relationship and personal friendship I’ve had for many years with co-founder, James Hannigan. It seemed like there was no specific forum, especially in Europe, where we could discuss the kind of issues that interest us to do with the art form of game music. Both of us have seen games music develop from sound chip to symphony. The standard of composition and production we hear in some of today’s videogames is absolutely superb. Many of James Hannigan’s own game scores are good examples…
We felt like the whole world of videogames music and the extraordinary talent behind it should be celebrated and explored – and so we created Game Music Connect. What happened next was we found there was a real appetite from other people who shared the same interest and passion for this subject. With some trepidation, we put together our first event and it was a great success, as was ‘year two’. We’re very grateful to everyone who believed in Game Music Connect from the beginning and supported us from the get-go. It’s pretty inspirational to have organisations like Sony PlayStation, the British Academy – BAFTA, COOL Music and Spitfire Audio backing you.
We’ve had some incredible guest speakers including Halo maestro, Marty O’Donnell, Jesper Kyd, and Jason Graves to mention just three. This year is no exception. The Director of Music for Sony PlayStation America, Chuck Doud, who has oversight of music for games like Uncharted and The Last of Us is giving our keynote; and composer and audio director for the Batman series, Nick Arundel will be there; the composer team for Alien: Isolation, the Project Morpheus VR music guys; orchestral conductor Allan Wilson (Sleepy Hollow, Harry Potter game series, Fable game series etc) and also the people behind Spitfire Audio’s orchestral libraries talking about how they create their virtual instruments. And there’s more! You can see the whole programme and REGISTER HERE:
Here are some things our speakers and attendees have said about Game Music Connect which I think answers your question about how the conference helps composers:
“The great thing about events like this is that you can learn so much. Somebody came up to me earlier and said I’ve learned more today than I did in a year’s course at university. I think that says it all.”
– Darrell Alexander, Composer Agent/Founder, COOL Music
“These kinds of events are so good to explain how we do things, how the business works, how as a composer they can break into the industry, about a lot of technical advances that they may not know much about or even be aware of. And we’re here to help build community spirit and educate the audience, to share common goals and practices to evolve and push the industry forward.”
– Richard Jacques, BAFTA and Ivor Novello nominated composer (007: Blood Stone, Mass Effect)
“I came to Game Music Connect last year and I found it really inspiring, especially talking about interactive music which we don’t get so much in film. So I came back for some more of that inspiration and maybe a guiding hand to some of it as well.”
– Fraya Thomsen, Composer
“I’m here because I’ve just come out of a masters at the Royal College of Music and I really want to focus on music for video games. The panel here is incredible, a really prolific panel. I really wanted to see the shape of the industry and how it’s moving forward.”
– Sam Dudley, Composer
“Game Music Connect was like no event I have ever been to before. The talent both on and off the stage made the event so unique and worth every penny spent. I almost expected some sessions to be quite ‘nerdy’ but in actual fact it was quite the opposite, both informative and easy to understand. Needless to say Game Music Connect far surpassed my expectations. A great day, with great people, all enjoying what we all love best, the art of video game music.”
– Doug Waters, Composer
“Game Music Connect was an amazing event that offers a unique insight into composing within the video games industry and the challenges it offers. I loved every minute of it and there was such a range of knowledge and advice on offer from different perspectives that was helpful in understanding the industry. I hope this is the first of many!”
– Alex Jones, Composer
“Game Music Connect was a breath of fresh air, I found the demeanour and passion of the panelists incredibly engaging and refreshing. It’s perfectly evident that the games industry – whilst a global business – has essentially evolved due to the passion and engagement of both its creatives and end users. It’s completely different from the film and TV world – perhaps due to having developed from the computer business rather than the entertainment industry. I’ll definitely be returning next year….”
– Nick Norton-Smith, Composer
Any tips/hints or motivational speeches for the readers?
Be realistic about your strengths. Write music you believe in. Always be in record. Good Luck! Thanks for having me on The Audio Spotlight and I hope to see you at Game Music Connect.