Interview with Tommy Tallarico

Tommy Tallarico

Renaissance  Man

We had the honor of interviewing a man whose contributions to musical composition and sound design within the video game industry have helped to define a standard of excellence as well as sparking a revolution in the way games are experienced today.  You may have heard his name in conversation or seen him on television. Perhaps you have seen him in concert, lecturing at a university, or featured in a magazine or website.  Maybe it was hosting or receiving honors at an award show, speaking at a convention, or heard him on the radio.  Odds are you have more than likely experienced his magic while immersed in one of the well over two hundred game titles to his credit.  While the video game industry has several notable personalities, few are as prolific, dynamic, and exuberant as Tommy Tallarico.   Tommy  was gracious enough to take time from his hectic schedule to speak with us about his past, present and future, learning that with great responsibility comes a whole hell of a lot of fun and games if you stick to doing what you love.  

GG: Who are the composers working in the game industries today that inspire you?

TT:  I absolutely love the stuff that my partner Jack Wall has done. He has written some amazing stuff for Myst III and IV, which is just incredible.  Obviously I have to give props to Nobuo Uematsu, who really is the King of All Video Music in the world. My favorite score by him, the most fantastic soundtrack ever written for a game, is Final Fantasy VIII .  That truly is the cream of the crop.

I would say the other stuff is Micheal Giacchino.  Micheal and I have been friends for over 12 years. The interesting thing about him is that he is doing the T.V. shows Alias and Lost, which are incredible and have won a lot of awards.  He is also doing major motion pictures as well.  He worked on The Incredibles the movie and then on the game with me as well.  So now he is working on Mission Impossible 3 and even though he is doing television and movies, he is still doing games; I think that is just great.  I was playing Black  just yesterday and noticed he had some work on it.  His work on Medal of Honor is simply incredible.

GG:  You’ve been quoted as saying that you strive to create a musical environment that gives the player a reason to move on to the next level just for the music alone.  While early game music was all done by coders, not professional musicians, where do you find your style fitting in the design process: as the skins or the bones?

TT:  Well, of the earlier music, for the most part, the music was done by coders, but there were also some amazing melodies that came out of that era. Super Mario Brothers, Zelda, Castlevania were created using simple memorable melodies because there was no technology to rely upon.  For the most part, a lot of it was starting to get pretty annoying by the early 90’s. 

I think that one of the keys of my composing success in the video game industry has been my ability to look at a game differently from maybe most composers or designers would.  I’m more concerned about the emotion that is going on screen as opposed to the environment.  I think too many times composers will look at the environment and say, “hey, we’re in the desert”, so they make a desert tune or “oh, we’re in the jungle”, so they add a jungle tune.  Or they have a lava scene, so let’s make it sound like “Lord of the Rings”.

I think what is most important is using the emotion, intensity and the character that is on the screen.  I mean, using John Williams as my inspiration, when you watch the Star Wars films and Darth Vader comes on screen, there is the Darth Vader motif and the music changes to match the emotion he brings to the screen at that time.  I mean, just because he is on Hoth, doesn’t necessarily mean the music has to be icy and cold sounding or we should put wind tree sounds in there, that is just stupid.  It is about the emotion that is going on.  So if there are two characters on screen that are in love, you want to write a tune that is more toward that.  I don’t give a shit if they are sitting in a jungle; that doesn’t mean I write jungle beats for a love scene. I’ve always tried to bring a difference to the game, something that no one has ever really heard before. 

For example, in Advent Rising, I did a lot of opera stuff written specifically for the game, which hadn’t really been done before.  I mean, going all the way back to Earthworm Jim, we were doing all sorts of zany, crazy stuff that no one had really heard in a game before, like Polka music.  Or whether it was in Global Gladiators, using dance music or “The Terminator”, which was the first time a live guitar was used in a video game.  What is funny is way back in the old days when I presented the guitar music for Terminator, I would literally have to sit and argue with certain people when they said “well, this doesn’t sound like a video game”.   I would say, “Yeah, that is exactly my point”.

The industry has come so far in such a short period of time in regards to game audio and music.  I mean, think about it, when I first got into the industry fifteen years ago, it was a bunch of bleeps and bloops.  If you look back at the last fifteen years and the amazing scores being created, they are on par with, if not better than, most movie scores these days.

GG:  I’m glad you mentioned “Advent Rising”.  When it comes to scores, regardless of the medium, the best you can hope for is to be moved to tears.  This soundtrack has precisely the broad range of emotions required to accomplish just that; it is quite difficult to accept this is a video game experience.

TT:  Well, thanks for that. I worked on the project over three years and the music represents my life’s work all coming together. That was the best work that I could do and just worked with a team of amazing people.  It is never just one person that works on a soundtrack; it’s the team that brings it together.  From our Academy Award Winning Mixer and Engineer, the Hollywood Studio Symphony Orchestra itself, our Emmy Award winning conductor Mark Watters, to the co-writers. It is just everything coming together with the most amazing professionals working in music in the world.  It was just amazing; these people are simply incredible.

I wanted to do something really different. I wanted to grab their emotions so I stuck with the storyline of the game itself.  In the end, the game ended up not coming out the way they planned; it didn’t do a lot of the big numbers they had hoped.  It hurt, the idea knowing that not as many people will end up hearing this music as they would if the game been a success.  With that being said, I don’t personally think it was a horrible game. I actually enjoyed the storyline; it really grabbed me.  It could have used few more months’ worth of polish but that can be said about a lot of games on the market.

GG:  When you actually put the audio to the game, do you score while you play or do you have tunes already that you match to certain scenes, by storyboard, or perhaps play it then compose?

TT:  It is kind of all of that. Initially, I’ll sit down with the designer who then explains what is going on in a particular scene or level.   From an emotional and storyline point of view, it’s always the best thing sitting there with the designer in my studio while playing the game and waiting for these things to pop up in my head.

Sometimes, you are only able to use the storyboards and paint the story in your head; sometimes it works just as well.  I can remember this great scene in Advent Rising where the visuals were not even done yet, but it was the turning point in the game.  It was when Gideon finds out that he is actually a god on this planet, brought there to fulfill a prophecy.  So they explain that in the storyline that he will step into the light and float up while receiving a key which will be significant later down the line.  At that point they told me to run with it, do whatever I wanted.  So I walked away with that in mind, came back with what we had, what we were happy with. After hearing it, they actually build the cinematic sequence around the score.  It was the best possible way to do that scene.  It would have been a completely different score knowing they were going to build around me, offering the piece a whole new direction.

GG: Would you rather work with an orchestra as opposed to complete computer composition?

TT:  Well, I do both.  What I prefer is combining both of the elements as I did in Advent Rising.  Eighty percent or so of that was live orchestra; the rest was overdubbing of percussion and other instruments as well as different sounds.  Especially when you are working with percussion and 5.1 mixes, we can really isolate those sounds. I compose initially on the computer and hand it off to the orchestrator who hands it off to the copy editor. Then the musicians play with the conductor, then the engineer mixes.  Then I’ll go back and add in more on top of it on the computer.   If I had to choose between only one or the other, I’m going to go with live every time. There is just something about the emotion and power when you have seventy musicians in the same room, all on the same page.

When we did Advent Rising, what we would do first when we write a tune, every part would have the computer playing and we thought, “Wow, this sounds like a live orchestra”.  We wondered how much better it could actually sound.  When we walked into that room and they started playing, you could hear all the nuances and velocity; I was in tears.  It was ten times better than what we first had that we thought sounded pretty good.

GG:  With all you’ve done in your career, what has been your single most indelible mark on the industry?

TT:  Well, what I would like to be known for is to be one of the guys that made people change the entire way they feel about music and the video game industry, the guy who took to the point of real music.  Going way back in my career, I wasn’t a programmer, I didn’t like the whole “merry go-round” melodies that were in every single game. My whole goal was to use music that I enjoy, like rock, blues, and electronica.  I wanted to bring that emotion and seriousness to it.  I would like to be remembered for making game audio a serious form of entertainment.

I started the non-profit organization G.A.N.G. , the Game Audio Network Guild to raise awareness and educate all of the other composers and audio designers on things like business, creative and technical issues.  We did this also to raise awareness to the publishers, developers and the general public about how important game audio is.  Fifteen years ago, game audio wasn’t a respected aspect of development. It was always one of the last things that people did with no budget, time or money.  That was one of the things that I did to help make it more serious, to say the audio is just as important as the graphics and the programming.  We should have a higher budget and more time to work on it.

The whole goal and idea of our concert, Video Games Live is to spread these amazing things to the world and not just hardcore gamers, but to all the non-gamers out there as well; that is how we designed it.  It is an enjoyable show even if you don’t play or like video games, you can be blown away by the visuals and video during this amazing and powerful experience.  So if I can be known for one thing, I would say it is to be known for bringing the legitimacy of game audio to the masses.

GG:  So here you are, the Rock Star of the Game Industry, taking from the studio to the stage.  How exactly has the experience of Video Games Live treated you so far?

TT:  As I said before, hearing it on your computer, headphones, stereo system, whatever, can be a beautiful thing.  But to hear it live, I just can’t stress enough how different it really is.  Some people say they’ve heard some live video game recorded in Japan or something and I have to say “NO, that is Not what I’m talking about!”  When you are there and you feel the energy in the room, the excitement from everybody out there, and see the music passing through the air all around you.  That is the only time you can feel that strength of emotion you just can’t get from a recording. So to bring that type of power and emotion to thousands of people is very emotional to me and with that responsibility comes a lot of pressure.

I’ve never really told anyone this before:  The day of our debut performance at the Hollywood Bowl, people had expected about five to six thousand in attendance.  To them, that would have been a success for something that nobody had ever really heard of, set on the biggest stage in the world.  I really wanted to set my sights high. Nobody opens a tour at the Hollywood Bowl; that’s just crazy, but we did it anyway.  Eleven thousand people showed up at the opening show, making it the biggest video game concert in the history of the world.  It tripled anything anyone had ever done before and with that came the pressure.  I wasn’t nervous because I was in front of eleven thousand people. I literally started crying because if something screwed up, I felt like I had the whole game industry on my shoulders that night.  So it would be bad if I screwed up but if I pulled it off, the benefits would be industry wide.  Luckily for us, everything came off great for the most part in a stressful situation where you are presenting an entire industry to the world on a live stage.

The incredible part about these performances is that only half the audiences are gamers.  The other half are grandmothers bringing their grandchildren, or girls who bought their date a ticket, or mothers who brought their five children.  The biggest responses we get from people are those who didn’t realize that video games are this amazing. We’ve received letters from sixty five year old grandmothers who admit to finally “getting it”, understanding the art, the visuals, the music, the incredible amount of work that goes into this. It makes it all worth while right there. That is at the core essence of why I do this in the first place.

We have the help of the whole industry behind us.  We’re not like some of these other concerts charging triple rates for a show, trying to make a quick buck.  We are doing this because we have passion and love for what we do. We are composers trying to show off our industry and the best of what we have.  We want everyone to come to our concerts. Hell, we have tickets starting at one dollar, then six dollars and up from there.  Our top selling ticket was fifty bucks compared to other shows charging one hundred twenty dollars and they don’t have lights, the lasers, the big show.  They even charge to meet the composers after the show.  Again, that is not what we do; that is part of going to VGL. We bring all this together with these aesthetically amazing visuals and we have a costume contest beforehand.  All this for just five bucks.  We do this for the entire audience, not just the hardcore gamers. 

We are about to make some amazing announcements in the next couple of weeks.  Anyone wants to know about what is coming, head over to our site and sign up for our mailing list, right on the front page.  We offer tons of promotions, tickets, and special offers to our mailing list subscribers before anyone else.   For instance, for our next show at GDC in San Jose, we offered the first fifty people who contacted us a free program and an invitation to come down and watch rehearsals.  Another one of the things we do is work with a lot of schools and programs to have them come and watch the shows and learn all about this incredible industry, to break all the molds of everything we do. 

GG:  What do you think of the current video game education programs and its affect on the industry?

TT:  Well, I teach courses and give lectures, and been a guest speaker at many schools, organizations & universities such as UCLA, USC & Full Sail University.  I seem to be a pretty easy draw as people want to come see “the video game guy”.  Since games are such a hot topic and interest right now, it is great to be in a position to be in contact with and give back to the people looking to get in the industry.  I would also recommend anyone looking to get in, join up and become a G.A.N.G. member.  We offer not only mentorship programs and community, but two $20,000 scholarships each year as well.

Another thing you can do is head down to the Game Developer’s Conference where fifteen thousand game developers gather every year.  I’m actually on the advisory board for the GDC and I run a lot of the audio tracks there at the convention. We have some amazing people teaching this year and you can learn more in four days than you can in years in the field.

Of course, there are a lot of great books out there as well, for example, The Complete Guide to Game Audio by Arron Marks, Audio for Games : Planning, Process, and Production by Alexander Brandon, who was also the composer on the Unreal stuff.   It is easy to get into the industry if you know where to look. 

I also want say something I tell a lot of people.   You don’t want to rely too much on just having talent.  I mean, talent is great, but the other half is the ability to network.  Knowing who to talk to and getting to the right people.  That is why some of the best people miss out, because they have not developed their communication skills. I wish people would focus much more on that than they do their talent. That goes for any job, not just the creative fields, but any industry.

GG:  Lately, there have been a few major players in Hollywood who have stated that the video game industry has not yet reached the same artistic peer level as films.  What is your take on that?

TT:  I would both agree and disagree with that comment.  I think that video games are becoming an art form.  I agree with them when I say that we are only just scratching the surface as an art form and emotion.  You said it earlier when you said Advent Rising gave you chills; there needs to be More of that.  That should be the norm.  

There are certain things that I remember in gaming, like the very first time I played Metal Gear Solid on the PS1.  There are these emotions that happen so clearly that you remember things that happened when you look back.  Those are akin to moments like the first time you saw Raiders of the Lost Ark or the Death Star blow up in Star Wars or what you felt when the Light Cycle zoomed across the screen for the first time in Tron. 

I think there are artistic and emotional moments that happen in video games, but I think we have only just begun.  The industry has a lot more to give in that respect so I can understand why Hollywood people would say that.   I think with better graphics, better technology, and more people in Hollywood getting into games, we are going to see some major changes.  Now that that is starting to happen, it will create the biggest growth for the industry.  As those people get involved, that will push it over the edge toward a legitimate art form.

GG:  What do you consider yourself these days?  A musician, a composer, an artist, a gamer, a television host, a producer, a concert promoter…….

TT:  I think if anything, the one word that I would choose is entrepreneur.  Actually, make that  “Gaming Entrepreneur”.  I get so much joy out of creating a piece of music that hundreds of thousands of people are going to eventually listen to; much joy in knowing that.  There is great joy being on a television show that a million people are going to watch.  There is also joy in doing these live concerts, knowing I’m going to bring this music to these people like they have never heard or seen before, ever.  They have waited their entire lives to see something like this happen.  I waited my whole life too!  I finally said screw it; I’m going to do it my way.

I cannot say I specifically like one better than the other. They are all very powerful and positive payback for different reasons.  If someone sat me down and said to pick just one thing to do, I would tell them to choose; I simply could not do it.  

Each one of my jobs gives me so much joy that I only sleep about three or four hours a day.  It’s because I’m so excited about what the next day is going to bring. The video game industry is my entire life; it allows me to create and do so many great things.  This is the focus of my existence so I’m always excited, every single day.  It is really all about the passion for doing something you really love.  Everything you want in life will follow if you just stick to just doing what you love.

GG:  How critical are you when you play a video game, being so close to the creation process?  Do you really get the time to dig deep into all those games?

TT:  Well, because one of my jobs is hosting on Electric Playground, I’m constantly playing games everyday.  It is like Christmas at my house every single day. I get all the titles before they come out.  It’s great being a part of this media outlet that allows me this opportunity.  So yeah, I talk about these things all the time, things like bad voiceovers or poorly read dialogue. Things like a single footstep sound for an entire game makes me just want to scream.  If you pay close enough attention it is easy to not use sounds like the same damn footstep noise over and over. 

This is why I agree with some of those Hollywood statements.  I mean, think about it: if you went to a blockbuster movie and there was a character on the screen, and all you heard through the whole movie was the same footstep noise over and over again, that would be completely unacceptable.  So why then should games not be held to that same level?  These are the details the game industry has to master to be taken seriously.  So yes, I am hypercritical. 

With that being said, I also appreciate it more when things are done properly.  For example, I was playing King Kong on the 360.  The mixing is just incredible, the music and how it interacts with the scene in unbelievable.  The voiceovers and sound design blew me away.  I can appreciate how long it takes to get a perfect audio mix, especially when you are dealing with 5.1 in an interactive world.  I’m blown away by the level of realism and quality of what they accomplished in that game.

Rocket Man

GG:  So have you grasped the big carrot yet? What is the next big mountain to climb for you?

TT:  The next big goal is to make “Video Games Live” a world wide presence.  I want it to be the next Cirque du Soleil.  I’ve had a lot of goals in my life that I’ve set out for myself and accomplished.  One was being in the games industry, one was being a professional musician, one was to put out the first video game soundtrack album, or the first to do music in 3D in a game.  There are so many things I’ve done that I’m proud of; forming my business and a non-profit or forming the first video game television show. I’ve always accomplished my goals no matter the barriers or the uphill battles.  

VGL is very difficult to bring it to the masses.  We started out great when we put on the biggest video game concert in the world on the most famous stage with the biggest orchestra in the world.  That was only the start, so it made it a hard path. We had to cancel a lot of dates last year; we were moving too quickly.  We came out of the gate so huge in LA that it made us over-ambitious about how we were going to do in all these other markets.   We were caught in the excitement and we learned from it.  Now it is all about stepping back and doing a much more focused build, working on the details.  That is going to be the key to success down the road and in 2006, we are accomplishing it.

GG: What’s coming big for GDC this year?

TT:  Well, for me, this will be the busiest year I’ve had with GDC. We have a bunch of G.A.N.G. events going on the entire time.  On Wednesday, we have the Game Developer’s Choice Awards which I’ve been asked to help host.  On Thursday night, we’ll have the G.A.N.G. Awards where we’ll have live video game performances from all the video game composers and we’ll have a big party afterwards.

As if that wasn’t enough, on Friday night we are doing a Video Games Live show as the closing ceremony of the GDC.  I recommend to anyone living in the area or attending the conference to either get online or get to Ticketmaster because the seats are going quickly.  That is going to just be incredible because it will be the very first time in the birthplace of video games, in Silicon Valley where it all started.  It is going to be a crazy, non-sleep week when I’m down there.

GG:  Thank you for taking the time to do this interview with us Tommy and we are looking forward to seeing you at GDC. 

Share the Post:

Add address