As superior technology started crippling traditional video gaming culture, the advent of the internet was just the beginning of modifying the entire gaming industry’s structure.
Bearing testimony, composer, Tom Salta, the man behind the background scores of multiple award-winning video games including Tom Clancy Franchise: Ghost Recon 2 and HAWX, Need for Speed- Underground 2, The Fast and the Furious, Red Steel, Prince of Persia, Halo Franchise, Killer Instinct 3, Playerunknown’s Battle Ground (PUBG), states,
“In 2001, after I had been in the music business for 15 years, the world started to change, hi-speed internet was available, people started downloading music for free, and all my plans to be a record producer started to fade. I didn’t see a future or a way to make a living as a record producer if music was going to be de-valued.”
Interestingly, an avid gamer himself, Salta took three weeks to create the theme song of Playerunknown’s BattleGrounds (PUBG). The song has been covered by multiple Indian artistes including Badshah out of many others.
With 227 million players around the globe and 600 million downloads, worldwide, Playerunknown’s BattleGrounds (PUBG) stands as the most popular game in the market today. Out of which, more than 50 million players are located in India alone.
Salta’s work goes beyond composing scores for video games. His notable works in film trailers include Toy Story 3 (web trailer), Astro Boy (Film Trailer), Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (film trailer), The Da Vinci Code (featurette & film promos). He has also worked on albums for major artists such as Whitney Houston, Cher, Peter Gabriel, etc.
In our Interview of the Week, Salta talks about his process of composing background scores for video games.
How did the crossover from composing music for movies, trailers, and albums to video games take place?
TS: So one day around 2002, the light bulb went off and I thought to myself that this was the future for me. It combined the two things I loved, music & video games. The idea came quick but there onwards, the battle was uphill. I learned quickly that in order to get established and noticed I had to stick out.
I could not afford to be just another composer wanting to get into the business. In order to avoid appearing like a run off the mill composer, I created a new name for myself, an artist name called Atlas Plug, and released an entire album of Electronica that would be perfect to license in video games, TV, and movies. The plan worked.
Before I finished the record, Microsoft wanted to license four songs in a game, RalliSport Challenge 2, and eventually, Crackdown and Project Gotham Racing 3.
I then had the opportunity to score some smaller games and soon after he opportunity to score one of my first big games, Ghost Recon- Advanced Warfighter.
To this day, some people still don’t realise I am Atlas Plug as well as Tom Salta.
[ Fun Fact- Atlas spelled backward is Salta. And the album he released under his alias was 2 Days or Die.]
If you could break down your process of composing for a game like Prince of Persia in comparison to others?
TS: I like to break it down into individual components. It is a matter of identifying the musical recipe. Thus, for Prince of Persia, some of the ingredients were very unique. I did not use any orchestral instruments; but used all authentic middle-eastern percussion instruments, brought in as many live instrumentalists as possible too. I worked with Azam Ali, one of my favourite vocalists, who I first heard in the movie score, 300.
And I made sure every ingredient that became the part of the tapestry of the music was very unique.
The theme to PUBG was, again, a certain recipe of sounds, certain combinations of hybrid orchestral with electronic instruments and percussions. Halo, had a completely different approach. It has some sacred elements along with Celtic, Tribal, and the ’80s Rock.
The need to immerse myself in different, limited, pre-defined combinations of musical ingredients is a challenge I really enjoy.
Could you elaborate?
TS: Every time I work on a new project, I break it down into different phases of creative process. Research and Development is generally the first phase. It entails a lot of listening, studying, and researching and not playing at all.
For example, we spent for the most recent project I am working on, we spent two weeks trying to figure out the kind of music that would fit within this world we wanted to create, identifying what would and wouldn’t work.
After that, I start to explore my creative palette, mostly using countless sound libraries and virtual instruments. I try to collect sounds that fit within the world. This way when I start working or playing,I already know it’s going to work. A lot of musicians call that a ‘template’.
So the first step is to listen, study, experiment, and try different musical phrases and melodies. After a lot of experimentation, and often failed ideas, I gradually discover and create the ideas that eventually work. It’s the same with Live instruments. I will have to decide what I can and cannot do.
In the composing world, you are a slave to the budget. If they don’t have the money for a full orchestra, it will have to be done another way.
Thankfully with modern technology, composers have nearly limitless instruments at our disposal. PUBG had no real orchestra what so ever. Virtual orchestration is a skill you will have to acquire with lots of practice and a lot of investment in various software libraries.
For Ghost Recon, you brought Hollywood Orchestra into a video game. Did you make that choice because of the brief you were given, the structure or the design of the game, or is it because you wanted to add that element as a composer?
How does that work out in each and every game you are working for?
TS: The audio directors are usually the ones I report to, directly. Usually, the direction will come from the audio director. Not always, but often. I remember in all my different projects, the audio directors would highlight what they liked from the music references I was given.
It could be melody from one, electronic aspect from the second, an orchestra from another, etc. Keeping those in mind, I was asked if I could create a totally new piece that infuses those elements.
I don’t do that just with scores, I do that with songs too. For example, Just Dance. Some of the unique and fun songs are a result of crazy things thrown at me as references or ideas like Japanese 1980’s Television show theme of a giant robot, or a 1990’s Tarkin pop song, or a Japanese song about Chiwawas. (laughs)
It becomes a fun challenge.
How did PUBG happen to you? How were you assigned as the composer for it?
TS: I received an email from the team in Korea. They said they would love to have me compose the new theme for PUBG and asked me if I was interested.
Then, they provided me with a creative brief stating almost everything they were looking for with some examples outlined from my previous works like the EDM elements from Halo Spartan Assault, or the heroic melody from Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter.
I then started experimenting with their requirements and sent some ideas over to them.
There was a bit of back and forth with revisions and ideas. But eventually, we ended up with a theme that they really liked.
How much of a say do the creators of a game, for instance, the creators of PUBG, Brendan (Greene), or Jang (Tae-Seok) have during the making of the theme song?
TS: They have a lot of input. Technically, they are my boss when I’m scoring a game. If an audio director does not like something I am doing, I have to get rid of it. That said, it’s a required mental adjustment for an artist or producer coming from the music world.
As a recording artist, everything revolved around the music and the artist usually controls the creative direction. But when you’re a composer scoring for a game, film, or TV show, you can’t say to the director “I know music better than you do.”
It’s good business for a composer to understand that they are providing a service. So, we have to make sure that our client is always happy.
Of course, that doesn’t mean we cannot have a different idea or opinion. Composers just need to learn the right time and place to respectfully present their own ideas.
That happened now on one of my recent projects. The client asked for a certain theme. I thought it was an unusual match but I took it as a challenge and composed something that I loved along with the rest of the team. But somehow, I felt it didn’t quite fit. I did exactly what they asked but I felt it didn’t quite match what the game was all about and how the player perceived the game.
So, about a month later I did a second theme without them asking. I knew it wasn’t what they were looking for, but I asked them to listen to it anyway. It took another month for them to actually come around and finally agree that this one was going to work better.
I’m really happy it turned out that way, but regardless, you can’t get into an argument and say “No! I know best.” You can’t do that.
The COVID situation has boosted video games revenue, do you think people are going to continue playing games post-COVID?
TS: I think, yes. I don’t know the exact numbers, but I do know some games have increased more than others. A lot of games have attracted those who generally don’t play games to take our minds off from the horrible things that are happening right now.
I don’t see any overall change happening in the games industry after this is over. I feel the world of games with continue to grow and evolve into a massive world of its own. This situation has actually brought in a lot of awareness of the enjoyment of video games and the escape it can offer for people.
Do you believe there’s a future for musicians in the video game industry?
TS: As the game industry continues to flourish, there will naturally be more opportunities for musicians to be a part of it. Just as the film and TV industry, as long as there is a demand, and the need, there will always be opportunities.
There’s certainly a larger supply of composers than a need for them. So, the competition is always going to be fierce. This has always been the case in the entertainment industry. It’s difficult; you have to keep at it. Your name needs to get out there, you have to market yourself and you have to be a smart businessperson too. Thinking like an entrepreneur, creating opportunities rather than waiting for them to come to you is what’s very important.
** A Mario soft-toy seated on a sofa behind Salta held my attention all throughout the conversation. He laughed when I told him that. In return, he humorously showed off his orange Atari Adventure T-Shirt. The conversation between a composer and a journalist, who were both gamers at heart had taken a full circle. **
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