Tom Salta Interview: Hybrid Scoring Techniques (April 2010)
Tom Salta is regarded as one of the most versatile composers in the games industry. He has composed everything from fusions of Eastern and Western elements on the Red Steel series, to intense symphonic epics for Tom Clancy's G.R.A.W. and H.A.W.X., through to hard-edged electronic and hip-hop tracks licensed for numerous racing games. In addition to these game works, he has a colourful background as a composer for various mainstream artists, television documentaries, and film trailers.
Continuing our series of interviews with pioneering Western game composers, Tom Salta gives us an insight into all his major game works to date. He reflects how he aims to offer a unique and fitting scoring approach for every game he uses, discusses the advantages of using recordings of solo performers and symphony orchestras, and gives an insight into his various licensed works. He also provides some interesting new details about his scoring approach for two upcoming games — Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands and R.U.S.E.
Interview Subject: Tom Salta
Interviewer: Chris Greening
Editor: Chris Greening
Coordination: Greg O'Connor-Read
Chris: Tom Salta, many thanks for speaking to us today. First of all, could you introduce yourself to readers and tell us about your background? What led you to become a video game composer?
Tom Salta: You're welcome. I'm a composer, producer and solo artist. I've created music for numerous games such as Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands for Nintendo Wii, Red Steel 1 & 2, Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter 1 & 2, Tom Clancy's H.A.W.X, Need For Speed Underground 2, and others. I also go by the name "Atlas Plug" for my solo electronica work. I spent many years in the music industry before getting into games.
I loved video games since childhood (pre Atari 2600) so it was always a constant hobby of mine. Shortly after I started playing Halo and Rainbow Six in 2001, I had an epiphany and realized that video game music was the perfect avenue for me to be involved in. This is when I came up with the idea of Atlas Plug. It was an effort to quickly establish myself in a whole new sector of the music business. This became my door into the game industry.
Chris: Before moving on to your game works, it'd be interesting to hear you talk about works in other media. In particular, could you tell us about your work on various television documentaries, film trailers, and with various recording artists?
Tom Salta: I'm fortunate to have had quite a varied career. For about fifteen years before getting into games, I focussed solely on mainstream music. During this time I toured with Bobby Brown, Mary J Blige and other recording artists. After that period, I focused more on studio work. During this time I worked with a diverse range of recording artists, producers, and DJ's on numerous styles of music including pop, dance, rock, R&B, Hip Hop, Jazz, Christian, Adult AC, Classical, you name it. Some of those artists included Junior Vasquez, Peter Gabriel, Cher, Whitney Houston, Amy Grant and others. In the second decade of my career, I started getting more into music-to-picture, creating licensable music and eventually scoring games.
Chris: Your score for the Wii's Red Steel was acclaimed for hybridising styles both East and West. What resulted in your diverse approach to this action game? How were you able to master so many different styles?
Tom Salta: Well I'm a big fan of fully immersing myself into different styles of music, so for me this was incredible fun. I've worked on so many styles of music in my career and for me, I love the challenge and adventure. The Audio Director Manu Bachet provided me with documents and reference material for various levels and, after that, it was just a matter of making it my own.
Chris: Your approach on Red Steel 2 is considerably different but still very diverse. Could you discuss how it compares with the original title? In particular, how did you elaborate on the wild western influence?
Tom Salta: Yes, the music for this franchise varies significantly between the two games. The original Red Steel score featured more focus on vocalists and offered a huge variety of music styles. The Red Steel 2 audio director Isabelle Ballet and I discussed exactly how we would symbolize both the East and the West in the sequel. It was decided that three distinctive guitar sounds would be used for the Western influence. Each of these sounds was meant to represent a different type of enemy. I also included other staples that most people associate with the "Wild West" like the fiddle, jaw harp, harmonica, and even a whistler to pay homage to the classic Morricone scores. As for the eastern influence, I incorporated a variety of Japanese and Chinese instruments including live percussion and pipa.
Chris: As you said, on both scores, you collaborated with numerous solo instrumentalists, ensembles, and vocalists. Could you discuss who you recorded with on these titles and what they brought to the overall score?
Tom Salta: I wanted to bring as much color and life to the score so I hired a variety of instrumentalists. The primary instrument was the guitar, and so I enlisted veteran studio musician Steve Ouimette. He was an amazing guy to work with for crafting very specific guitar tones and getting stellar performances.
The main Eastern color came from Min Xiao-Fen, a world renowned Chinese Pipa player and vocalist. She is experienced in both traditional Chinese music and jazz so we had a lot of fun experimenting with various approaches I also called upon Antoine Silverman, an established New York violin player, Jim Hynes, who performed the whistling parts, Zhensheng Wang on Chinese percussion, and Corrin Huddleston on Harmonica. Even I made my debut on the Jaw Harp and all the yelling in "Vultures' Prayer"... it was a blast!
Chris: It was just announced that you are composing a very different world music score on Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands. How did you come to inherit the scoring duties of the franchise and what should we expect from your upcoming score?
Tom Salta: Since I had never worked with this particular team, nor on this franchise, I was asked to submit a pitch. Fortunately they really liked what they heard and I was selected. You should expect to hear something very different than the music I've done in the past. For Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands, the team and I discussed the idea of avoiding the typical "Hollywood" orchestral/ethnic blend and to aim for a more eclectic, ambient and immersive direction. I wanted it to feel fresh and new, not so familiar and expected.
The thing I've always felt when playing classic Prince of Persia games from years past is being in this fantasy world that I never wanted to leave. That's the feeling I wanted the music to evoke... that we've been transported into another world beyond our imagination.
Chris: Beyond these series, you're famous for your recurring works in the Tom Clancy franchise. In particular, could you discuss your work on Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfare 1 & 2? How did you make this work firmly your own?
Tom Salta: Every time I take on a new game score and particularly a new franchise, I put a great deal of effort into crafting a stylized sound for it. My goal is to always create something unique and recognizable that someone would instantly associate with a particular game or franchise.
Chris: H.A.W.X. was especially remarkable for its intense layering and thematic development. Could you elaborate on how you achieved this? Do you think this relentless and energetic approach is characteristic of your musicality in general?
Tom Salta: Thank you. I think this energetic approach is characteristic of the thematic sound that I aimed for with H.A.W.X and the G.R.A.W. series in general. I certainly have no problem creating intense thematic and energetic music but I wouldn't say it's characteristic of my approach for everything. For example, R.U.S.E. and my latest score, Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands for Nintendo Wii, both have completely different approaches and often are much more atmospheric and tranquil. I love creating variety and dynamics.
Chris: Focusing in a little more on R.U.S.E., you mentioned the score has a different dynamic and ambience to many of your other works. Could you elaborate on how this is so and what approach you felt was fitting for this game?
Tom Salta: R.U.S.E. has a very different sound than anything I've ever done. It supports that romanticized World War II adventure feeling. They wanted most of the cues to be very soft and pensive — appropriate music to listen to while strategizing your next move.
Chris: On G.R.A.W., H.A.W.X., and presumably R.U.S.E. too, you were able to record with full orchestras. Could you reminisce about what it was like to record these titles? What did the Hollywood Studio Symphony, New York Philharmonic, and Northwest Sinfonia bring to these scores?
Tom Salta: Whenever I have the opportunity to bring in a live orchestra, it always brings a certain depth and human realism to the score. I really enjoy that part of the process. Nothing can top the feeling of 50-100 people performing in a room with such expertise, power and elegance. It's like pure adrenalin.
Chris: You have also worked extensively on several racing titles, most notably Full Auto 2: Battlelines and Need for Speed Underground 2. How did you approach each of these titles and what did you bring to the overall game experience?
Tom Salta: Both games were about speed, so in general, the music had to support and create this feeling. To capture exactly what they were going for, I worked very closely with the audio directors on both projects. EA contacted me regarding Need For Speed Underground 2 based on the style of my solo album, Atlas Plug, 2 Days or Die.
Chris: As you said, in addition to more cinematic scores, you are known for creating high-energy original tracks under the artist name Atlas Plug. Could you describe the music we should expect from you under releases such as 2 Days or Die? How did you develop such a compelling style?
Tom Salta: Creating music as an artist for your own platform is much different than creating music for other people's ventures and this also applies to the game medium. When you're writing a solo album, it's based upon the musical voice you, as the artist, want to capture. So I had to do some soul searching as to what I wanted to say, what feelings I wanted to create, what elements I wanted to use. It was challenging and liberating at the same time.
Chris: Your works as Atlas Plug have been licensed for a wide variety of purposes, especially racing games. Could you elaborate on where the music has been licensed?
Tom Salta: Wow, I can't even begin to tell you how many places it's been licensed. Atlas Plug has been heard in TV shows, film trailers, video games, commercials and even sporting events including the Olympics. It's really amazing to see how many people have resonated with the music, and that every track on the album has been licensed for various purposes.
Chris: Although not featured on 2 Days or Die, "Around the World" is regarded as a classic by many. What do you think made this track so successful? Could you explain how you elaborated on this track with the Around the World Remix EP and Best of the Best?
Tom Salta: It's great to hear that it's been so well received. Crackdown used several tracks from the existing Atlas Plug album but Microsoft asked me if I had anything that combined electronica and Asian. I said no, but I'll make one! And that's how it happened. Now I just need to make the time to finish the rest of the new album.
Chris: On that note, you've announced that you're working on your second solo album under Atlas Plug. Could you elaborate on what we might expect from that? When do you hope to release it?
Tom Salta: I can't predict when it will be released but it's something I think about every day. I really enjoy working on Atlas Plug material but right now, composing original game scores is where my time is being utilized. But as soon as I have something in the works, I'll be sure to make an announcement.
Chris: Thank you for your time today, Tom Salta, and best wishes for all your future productions. To finish, is there anything else you'd like to say about your upcoming works? Also, is there anything you'd like to say to readers around the world?
Tom Salta: Well, I have to say thanks so much for taking the time to read this. 2010 will be an exciting year with several games that I've worked on to be released later this year. Please visit my official website and join my Facebook page. I love interfacing directly with fans.
Many thanks to Greg O'Connor Read for coordinating this interview. Salta's website contains behind-the-scenes details and music clips from Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands, Red Steel, Red Steel 2, G.R.A.W., G.R.A.W. 2, and H.A.W.X.