Frank Klepacki, composer of the iconic Hell March from Command & Conquer: Red Alert (voted the best video game soundtrack of 1996!), thinks that video game musicians these days are almost at a disadvantage thanks to the multitude of tools and techniques now available to them.
Looking back on the days of early PC gaming, Sega Genesis and the SNES, Klepacki recalls that he had to “really push” to get music to sound the way he wanted and considered acceptable.
When you have limitations, you have to be clever in thinking of ways to utilize whats available to you to its fullest capacity.
In working with that melody and bass lines and how they counter each other becomes extremely important, and cleverly filling in the spaces in between to make it interesting, using mulitple instrument changes, tempo changes, and hand editing instruments to sound a certain way, using pitch and dynamics as much as you can, its challenging!
Some 20 years later, Klepacki observes that video game music is “on par” with everything else, so it’s more difficult to make something that sounds unique – rather than the instruments and the implementation, it’s up to the composition itself that has to stand out.
I always go back to why I think John Williams is a genius for orchestral music. You will always walk away with a memorable theme from him, vs the average orchestral score from someone else. So the only difference is the score itself, not the instrumentation. So bottom line, you just have to compose well to make an impact. I rememebr very clearly the themes from Jaws, Star Wars, Indiana Jones, E.T., Harry Potter. I can’t rattle off that many movies from a single other composer that I truly remember walking out of theater and humming the theme the next day.
It’s not just technology and multiple instruments that are making composers’ work nearly too easy, Klepacki says in a Reddit AMA post. He also points the finger at the developers, publishers and other creators who constantly ask composers for “the same types of cues over and over again”, which – inevitably – results in a certain level of sameness between tunes.
I’m a big advocate for creative freedom (within reason of course) and I appreciate much more when a composer is allowed to be more creative and give a personaility to a soundtrack. Its the reason any of my work has resonated with anyone. I was allowed to take chances throughout most of my career.
One of Klepacki’s most loved tracks – Target, from the original Command & Conquer soundtrack – is an example of his taking chances in compositions. The song features the line “I’m a mechanical man” repeated over an electronic/industrial beat – many people are left wondering who is speaking, and where the words were sampled from. The answer? Klepacki himself. He reports that he heard the line somewhere, and liked it enough to record for his latest project. “It was inpsired by the idea of piloting a mech,” he says.
Perhaps unsurprisingly then, the composer says his dream job – hands down – is to work with the Transformers franchise.
I really enjoy the War for Cybertron & Fall of Cybertron games and I would totally dig composing in the universe. And while I was at it, I’d bring in Vince Dicola too because he’s the king of Transformers music in my book!
Klepacki has spent recent years “overseeing, implementing, and content creating for all audio aspects of End of Nations” for Petroglyph Games, and is currently working on a new project album, under the group name Face the Funk. The album – Here at Last is a bit of a departure from the “rocktronic” stuff we’re used to, instead being dedicated to “all the founding influential bands in the funk music genre.” It’s due out November 1st via his website.