Creation of Mortal Kombat 9 soundtrack - exclusive interview with Dan Forden
Game-OST was able to speak with a man whose influence on Mortal Kombat was almost as much as Ed Boon did. Yes, we are talking about series permanent composer and audio producer Dan Forden. His memorable atmospheric music and distinctive sound effects brings charm to Mortal Kombat. And rarely appearing on eBay soundtracks are tasty catch for any soundtrack collectors and music lovers.
In this interview Dan talks how he got into game industry (and in Mortal Kombat too), how it was all started and also brings the light on musical and sound part of fresh new Mortal Kombat 9.
And, this is world exclusive and first big interview with Dan. Enjoy!
I was very interested in music as a kid and once I learned how to play guitar and flute, I started to experiment with writing my own music, though these efforts rarely went anywhere. It wasn’t until I started studying music more seriously in college and when I started working for Williams that I began to write complete pieces of music.
What was the first instrument you’ve tried to play on? And what is your favorite one?
I learned guitar first - basic chords and such, but started teaching myself finger picking over the years. I started playing flute when I was 12 and studied it seriously well into college. I learned how to play saxophone along the way and even dabbled with the bassoon. Later on, I picked up electric bass and played in some bands.
We heard you have graduated from TIMARA University. Could you tell us more about it?
That’s one of those Wikipedia misinterpretations. I went to Oberlin College where there was a computer and electronic music program called TIMARA (Technology In Music And Related Arts). Oberlin is a great school. It has a conservatory of music, which is a great resource both for serious performance-oriented students and those that want a general musical education, and the liberal arts college which offers a fantastic all-around education. I received a BA in Music History and Theory and a Computer Science minor.
Have you ever played in any local rock/metal bands?
Yes, I had a band called “Fish of Destiny” back in the late 1980’s and I played in “Cheer-Accident” in the early 1990’s. I played bass in both of those. I’m on a few of Cheer-Accident’s recordings: Not a Food, Enduring the American Dream and The Why Album.
Tell us about your studio equipment?
I’ve worked both at home and at Midway and Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment over the years with a variety of different setups. Currently I’m running Pro Tools 8 on an 8-core Power Mac and I have a number of excellent musical plug-ins: Omnisphere, Stylus RMX, Kontakt, Play Libraries (Ministry of Rock, Stormdrum, Symphonic Choirs) and other Native Instruments plug-ins. I also use Vegas and Sound Forge for sound effects and other mixing and editing.
When did you start to write music for games? And how did it happen that you got into Midway?
I first got a job with Williams Electronics (they actually owned the Midway, Williams and Bally brands) doing audio for arcade video and pinball machines. I pretty much started right in writing music and creating sounds for multiple games. The first video game I ever worked on was called “Arch Rivals”. It was an arcade 2-on-2 basketball game where you would punch or tackle your opponent to get the ball (or keep him from getting it). It’s still a great game to this day. Midway was eventually spun off into its own company in the late ‘90s.
Before started your work on Mortal Kombat, you have written music for pinball arcade machines, haven’t you? This is very interesting experience and we have no idea how these machines are programmed. Could you bring some light on this? :)
The pinball machines have a collection of computer boards that control game logic, light shows, dot-matrix displays and audio. During my time doing sounds for pinball, the hardware evolved from an FM synthesizer board to a data compression system (created by Matt Booty and Ed Keenan) that allowed us to use standard music production resources to create sounds and music. In pinball, we would write different pieces of music depending on the game state and the game programmer would write the rules such that the music would change as you progress through the game - not too different from video games. When the ball hits targets or goes up ramps, that would trigger sounds, light shows, dot matrix displays and scoring.
How did you get the position of sound designer/composer at original first Mortal Kombat game? Did you have any expectations that the game would be a cult?
We know it was really long-long ago but could you tell what hard ‘n soft did you use for the first Mortal Kombat? What limitations did you meet while you were working on Mortal Kombat?
Just about all the hardware and software we used on the original game was developed in-house. I think Ed used 6800 assembler to write the code. As far as audio went, we had an 8-voice Yamaha FM chip,
What creative freedom did you have while you were working on original Mortal Kombat Trilogy? Who decided to use a gloom ethnic soundtrack in the game?
I mostly composed what I thought made sense for what was in the game and collaborated with Ed on the direction. It was largelymade up as we went along. There wasn’t any idea of doing a “gloom ethnic soundtrack”.
What technical limitations did you meet, especially when the game was ported to 16-bit consoles?
I wasn’t involved in the porting of the early arcade versions.
Mortal Kombat always has a perfect sound-design. From Scorpion’s “Come here!” to powerful sounds of punch and kicks, memorable “Fatality” sound in MK2 and a fantastic Shao Kahn’s voice (please, please, please, get this guy back at MK9!). Where do you get all this inspiration? Tell us a few words about a sound design for these games? Maybe you could remember some funny moments from field recordings?
It has always been a group collaboration between the members of the team. Everybody brings ideas to the table and my job has been to try to create audio content that supports what’s going on in the game. We’ve had a lot of fun over the years coming up with things for the characters to say. I remember especially trying to script dialogue for Shao Kahn back on Mortal Kombat 2or Mortal Kombat 3 - we wanted him to say something that would get the player so mad at losing to him that he’d be frantically rummaging through his pockets for quarters to put in the game as the “Play Again” timer was winding down. That’s where “You weak, pathetic fool” and “It’s official - You Suck” came from. Ed Boon is responsible for Scorpion’s “Get over here!” and “Come here!”. He wanted the character to say something when he was pulling you toward him - it’s actually Ed’s voice too. This time around we have a lot more character speech. Brian Chard did a great job coming up with ideas for what some of the characters might say in the heat of battle and we’ve been able to make some of that happen throughout the fighting.
In Mortal Kombat Deception you took the role of audio lead. Tell us what is the difference between this role and the position of composer? Also, have you been only an audio director or you have written some music for game too?
I was composer/sound effects/dialogue guy on all of the first four Mortal Kombat games (all the arcade ones) and responsible for most of the content on Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance, with notable contributions from Rich Carle and Vince Pontarelli in the form of some great pieces of game play music. On Mortal Kombat: Deception and Mortal Kombat: Shaolin Monks, I did create a lot of content - music and sound effects - but also managed others in the development of sounds and music for the game (Rich Carle, Brian Chard, Vince Pontarelli, Chase Ashbaker).
We are glad you are back in Mortal Kombat 9 as a composer. What kind of soundtrack we should expect from you?
This time around, I had access to an even better composing rig than I had on Mortal Kombat: Deception, so I’ve been able to experiment with a wider variety of orchestral and ethnic samples as well as some great synth plug-ins like Omnisphere and Stylus RMX. That said, I’ve enjoyed returning to some of my Mortal Kombat roots and re-creating some of the older music with a new sound and also going in some new directions, especially orchestral, but also more aggressive metal/guitar directions. It’s been a lot of fun.
Are you working alone right now? If no, could you tell us about these guys?
Definitely not working alone. We have a great crew headed by Rich Carle, audio director, who has worked hard to set up the department so we all have everything we need to create great content. He’s also contributed a lot of great material, whether it’s fighting or UI music, movie soundtracks or in-game sound effects. Also, Brian Chard has handled a lot of the script writing and making sure all characters have excellent VO, both for movies and in-game. Michael Caisley and Matt Grimm consistently deliver imaginative and super high quality sound effects and mixes for movies and music, and Chase Ashbaker came on late to help us get things out the door.
How much music was written for the game? Are there any live performances?
In-house, we wrote most of the in-game fight music, as well as all UI music and some movie scores. We also contracted out to external composers to write music for a number of the movies in the story mode and they did a stellar job. Personally, I played a lot of guitar and some flute for the in-game fighting music and Rich did some guitar as well. I don’t know how much total music was written, but I’d guess it would fill at least 2 CD’s.
Where did you get inspiration for the soundtrack (maybe some movies, recently heard albums, books)? What is a main goal of the music in MK9?
The main goal of the music in Mortal Kombat has always been to provide the underlying emotional element to the action on the screen. As far as inspiration goes, I usually think about the music I like that gets me going (see the list below). My typical approach is to get as much of a feel I can of what the visual environment is and then start playing with musical ideas that help reinforce that.
Will the soundtrack be classical loop-based or you have made some innovations in a sound engine of the game?
The music flow of the game is pretty simple and mostly follows the format of the original: main tune, finish-him music and an ending hit, unless you enter the Fatality mode.
Could we expect a return of a famous Shao Kahn’s voice whose famous statements from the game are still echoing in our ears in an ordinary life :)
Much of Shao Kahn’s dialogue will be familiar, but we have a new voice actor who did a fantastic job.
Mortal Kombat always has memorable musical compositions which (except MK1-4) were never released as official soundtracks. People were ripping them from games and, of course, quality of such rips weren’t good. It would be fantastic if Mortal Kombat get CD/digital releases of its fantastic soundtrack. We are sure people would like to pay money for the music because it is good and, yes, it is Mortal Kombat. So, don’t you think about a possibility of a solo soundtrack release?
It’s definitely a possibility - it can be difficult to find the time since we’re usually on to the next project as soon as the current one completes.
And, in the end, some general questions :)
What groups/composers do you like? With whom you would like to work together?
I like a lot of different things, but bands/artists I’ve always liked include: King Crimson, Jethro Tull, Gentle Giant, Soundgarden, Black Sabbath, Nine Inch Nails, Bill Frissell, Fred Frith, Steve Vai, Audioslave, Alice in Chains, Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, Cheer-Accident, Carla Kihlstedt, Sheryl Crow, Chris Whitley, Filter, Frank Zappa, Incubus, Joni Mitchell, Korn, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Peter Gabriel, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Radiohead, Shudder to Think, Yes, UK, Bartok, Messiaen, Hindemith, Berg, Thomas Newman, Stravinsky... I’m sure I’ve left some out...
What is a recently heard album that has made an impression on you? Same goes to the movie :)
Albums: Chris Whitley - Rocket House, Terra Incognita, Din of Ecstasy.
Movie: District 9.
It looks like a digital distribution has almost buried sales of audio CDs. What do you think about the future of a sound industry?
I’m not sure where it’s going, but I like the fact that more independent artists are able to be heard.
What could you advice to rookie composers? Share your wisdom!
Just keep writing what you love and make sure people hear it.
And, some hot words for people from cold Russia! Drunken bears and stunningly beautiful women are among them :)
Keep playing Mortal Kombat!
We are looking forward to playing MK9! Gameplay trailers look very promising and Fatality are fresh and bloody as they were in first MK. We wish you good sales and new impressive soundtracks! Thanks for answering our questions!
Mortal Kombat 9 is out on April 19th for Playstation 3 and Xbox 360.