Mike Reagan Interview: Going to War (May 2010)
Mike Reagan has been working in the Hollywood music industry for 16 years. He initially worked as a sound designer and composer for Soundelux on a range of Hollywood scores. Subsequently he became recognised as a lead composer on titles such as the God of War trilogy, Darksiders: Wrath of War, Conan, and NBA 2K9. The orchestral composer has recently expanded his studio with the addition of an assistant composer and a new business development team.
In his first interview since the expansion, Mike Reagan talks indepth about his principles for creating music-for-visuals. He particularly focuses on his roles on epic orchestra and chorus scores such as God of War III and Darksiders: Wrath of War. However, he also reflects how his career working on television, films, and video games has demanded diverse approaches and always brings unique challenges.
Interview Subject: Mike Reagan
Interviewer: Chris Greening
Editor: Chris Greening
Coordination: Greg O'Connor-Read
Chris: Mike Reagan, thank you for taking the time to talk to us. First of all, could you introduce yourself to those who aren't already familiar with you and tell us about your journey to becoming an orchestral composer?
Mike Reagan: My pleasure. Music has been in my blood as far back as I can remember. I was a student at Berklee College of Music in Boston. After that, I went to Los Angeles and through sheer luck and a bit of harassment — I mean persistence — got a job working as a Sound Effects Designer on games and feature films. It was at that time I really gained insight into just how important audio is for visual media, be it music or sound effects.
My heart has always been in music. I stopped doing sound effects and for the past eight years I've been on my own working as a composer, writing music for video games, television, and film.
Chris: You're renowned for composing music across multiple industries, ranging from film to television to video games. How do your experiences in each differ? Is there a particular sector which you prefer working in or gain more satisfaction from contributing to?
Mike Reagan: When you're writing for television or film, you're writing music to support the emotion of a specific scene that will play the same way every time you watch it. In video games, you experience the same treatment for cinematic cut scenes, but during gameplay it's much different. You're essentially given some artwork, some general direction and sent on your way. Down the road, you'll see more game footage and you might have to tweak the music accordingly, but overall it's a constantly evolving process, and the only way to tell whether your music is working is to play the game during the development process.
I get the most satisfaction from the "story" itself. Whether it's in a game, television show, or film, if the story is unique and interesting then I want to write music that helps tell it. It's that simple.
Chris: As a game composer, you're probably best known for working on the God of War series. How did you become involved in this franchise and what were you able to offer to the original game?
Mike Reagan: I became involved with God of War early on. Sony was looking to composers to find that specific sound David Jaffe was looking for. I remember writing a demo for that job based on game description alone, as nothing was allowed to leave the SCEA studio — no artwork or gameplay captures.
Upon doing a few revisions, it became apparent that I really needed to see some of the game. I drove down to Sony's Santa Monica studio to take a look, and within seconds knew I was looking at something groundbreaking. All at once I was hit with a flurry of ideas and it became obvious what I needed to modify in order to complement the game. I went home and started experimenting with choir samples to sonically match the scale of what I had just seen. And thankfully they liked it and we've been working together ever since.
Chris: While your contributions to the series are major ones, the God of War franchise also features several other orchestral composers. What were the advantages of adopting a collaborative approach for this series? Was there much direct collaboration between the composers or were most activities coordinated through the audio directors?
Mike Reagan: It was great hearing everyone's own interpretation of beauty, blood, and gore for the first time on the scoring stage at Skywalker Sound.
Everything was coordinated through Clint Bajakian, Senior Music Supervisor at Sony. As composers, we would occasionally use each other's themes, depending on the workload, but there really wasn't a creative collaboration between us. In addition to writing the actual music for the game, I'd say that the real creative collaboration came from Clint's supervision and the talented team at Sony. They acted as the median between composers and developers. They just make it so easy, giving us as much time as possible to focus on writing and being creative. Taking on a game like God of War takes an entire crew. There's music supervision, composition, music editing, and the implementation of scripting every twist and turn of the game.
Chris: Over the years, the God of War scores have considerably evolved. What musical and technological innovations did you perceive with each innovation? In particular, how did you ensure a particularly powerful end to the storyline in God of War III?
Mike Reagan: We are now able to explore more melodic development than we were on the first title. Over the course of the series, melodic and harmonic development has really grown. The original God of War set the stage with live choir, chanting, and pounding rhythms. As we moved forward we were able to experiment a little more and record live brass, live choir, and live strings.
We recorded God of War III under the new AFM video game agreement and, thanks to Sony's vision and support, we were able to record locally with some of the best musicians in the world. And that's something I'm hoping we'll continue to do on future projects as well.
Chris: Many of your scores, including the God of War series, Conan, Van Helsing, and Twisted Metal: Black, highlight your ability to create epic action cues using a combination of orchestra and chorus. Could you elaborate on how you achieve this sound from a compositional perspective? How did you become so well-versed in choral writing?
Mike Reagan: Writing for thirty to forty singers is an extremely freeing experience because they can do amazing articulations and effects with their voice. Everything from whispers to singing in Greek and Latin — from full throttle stacked chords to that eerie, ghostly element that really helps immerse the player into the world.
The secret to growth in any art is repetition and the need to constantly stretch and surprise yourself. When speed and quality have to be at their highest peaks, you can't help but grow because you have to listen to the masters and pay close attention to how they're doing it. The key to making these choral arrangements sound great lies in the artful sculpting of a great orchestrator. Luckily we had the hand of Tim Davies throughout the entire God of War series, who did a fantastic job.
Chris: It'd also be interesting to hear you talk about the implementation of your music. Do you generally prefer to use full orchestras in your productions or do budget limitations sometimes prevent this? What do you feel a full orchestra brings to an epic game score?
Mike Reagan: Yes, when the budget permits it, I always prefer to use a full orchestra. The combination of composition and masterful manipulation of samples can make a score sound good, but live musicians make it epic. When the artists render these incredible environments and the writers come up with this expansive storyline, the music needs to be on that same caliber; otherwise, you're not doing their work justice.
Chris: Games such as Conan, Darkwatch, and Rise of the Kasai also feature some very expansive mood-setting compositions from you. How do you establish and develop the soundscapes in these compositions and integrate them into the game?
Mike Reagan: I love different genres of music, particularly world music and it's a real gift to be handed projects like these. Choosing a specific place to put these into the games is really all derived from the artists and animators who create them. It's based on location; if some artist creates a cavernous environment, or an underwater world, that'll inspire me a certain way.
That's the great thing about games. I'm able to use a different part of my brain. It's a more abstract approach when you're given just concept art as a springboard. It's the way composers made music before there was such a thing as linear visual media, when they only had live actors in a concert hall to incite the emotions that dictated what strings were played, or how hard you hit a drum, etc. Something we take for granted now.
Chris: In particular, the music for Darkwatch is very experimental. Could you tell us how you developed the unique soundscapes in this game and, in particular, how you integrated the unusual instrumental and vocal techniques?
Mike Reagan: Darkwatch is an excellent example of a collaboration among musicians who are also very good friends. Asdru Sierra (Ozomatli) can do so many things. He can play trumpet, he can sing, he can blow into a conch shell and make it sound incredible. Combined with my guitar and abstract sampling and composing background we were able to come up with a signature sound for this unique mix of the vampire and western genre.
Chris: Your contributions are certainly among the most immersive featured in the Darksiders: Wrath of War score. Could you tell us about your offerings to this project and how they contributed to the overall experience?
Mike Reagan: Given the game's subject matter, we wanted to have religious overtones throughout the score that would be a welcoming contrast to the game's bleak setting. We used melody, choir, and orchestra to do that. We also recorded a solo boy soprano, which added a type of youthful innocence that melded well with dark undercurrent of the game.
Chris: In addition to work on these major titles, you offered some much lighter non-symphonic scores for sports games like the annual NBA games or tie-ins such as Disney's Villains Revenge. Could you share your experiences on such projects? Is it enjoyable to sometimes work in non-orchestral styles?
Mike Reagan: Yes definitely. I love writing different styles, the same way I enjoy listening to different types of music. Transitioning from mature-rated titles like God of War, to light-hearted animated television series really is creatively stimulating. At the end of the day, of course, I'll write whatever is best for the project. Not all projects require that big, bombastic, orchestral score so identified with God of War. You have to change it up and keep challenging yourself to avoid falling into that comfort zone. If it starts to feel "easy", you're finished.
Chris: During your career, you've also been involved in numerous major movies both as a composer and sound designer. Could you reminisce about the major highlights of your film career? Which film score are you most proud of?
Mike Reagan: I wrote a song for the Sony/Jim Henson film, Elmo In Grouchland. The Music Supervisor, Andy Hill, had asked several known songwriters to submit songs. I knew it was a long shot, but Andy took a chance on submitting the song to the director because he really believed in the demo I had created — and as I came to find out, the Henson people believed in it, too. However because of the many decision makers in the mix, I was forced to submit several other versions of the song, at which point I brought in my friend Greg Mathieson to help me zero in on what the studio was looking for. A few weeks later, I received a call from Kevin Clash, the voice actor for Elmo, congratulating me in his Elmo voice saying, "Guess what? Your songs in the movie, yaaaaaay!" "Take The First Step" was among the songs on the soundtrack that went on to win a Grammy for Best Children's Soundtrack. That's certainly one of my proudest moments.
Chris: It'd be a shame to finish without mentioning some of your television works. Could you discuss what television scores you have contributed to and, in particular, how you approached the music of humorous series such as That 70's Show and Ape Escape?
Mike Reagan: The one rule that never changes is that music is there to support the story and the actors' performances. In children's cartoons, the emotion is more frantic and extreme. The character can go from being happy for eight seconds, show brief sadness for four seconds, and then revert back to being overjoyed. It's quite manic, when you think about it, but the score has to support all of it.
Chris: A Mike Reagan is credited as the lyricist for Dark Cloud 2, White Knight Chronicles, and Arc the Lad: Twilight Spirits. Are you able to confirm this is you and, if so, how did you become involved with these productions?
Mike Reagan: Yes, that's me. Sony contracted me to write English versions of the lyrics for those titles. I learned a lot about literal translations between Japanese and English. Matt Stone and Trey Parker hit it on the head with "Let's Fighting Love" for South Park's "Funtime with Weapons" episode. Classic!
Chris: Thank you very much for your time today, Mike Reagan. Is there anything else you'd like to say about your works or upcoming projects? In addition, is there any message you'd like to leave to readers around the world?
Mike Reagan: Right now I'm working on a couple unannounced projects and just wrapped up God of War: Ghost of Sparta for PSP. It's a really cool surprise release after what was supposed to be the final installment of the franchise.
People aspiring to join the next generation of composers shouldn't be afraid to take risks with their work. If it sounds safe, that's probably because you've heard it a thousand times over in various incarnations from other artists. It's easier said than done, of course, but to really break ground you need to surprise yourself. If you can do that, then the audience will follow.
Many thanks to Greg O'Connor Read for coordinating this interview. Learn more about Mike Reagan at his official website.