The following is an interview with Tommy Tallarico conducted by ArchangelUK which was originally posted in three parts from February to March 2009 on the Sonic City Blognik. It is reposted here in its entirety.
Tommy Tallarico is a busy man, you only need to see his email signature to get a bit of an idea as to how busy. Host/writer/co-producer, The Electric Playground & Reviews on the Run television shows. Founder, CEO and Chairman of Game Audio Network Guild [G.A.N.G.]. Executive Producer and CEO of the legendary Video Games Live show – oh, and he’s also the President of Tommy Tallarico Studios, Inc. let’s not forget that.
He’s also an absolute pleasure to talk to incidentally.
Last month we asked you to provide us with some questions to pass on to Tommy, a long time Sonic fan, who was invited to produce some music for Sonic & The Black Knight. You sent the questions in your droves, asking this composing superstar everything from the technical to the personal and then there were the others… is Tails playable in the multiplayer of SBK and would Sonic ever marry Amy. Riiight…. Anyway after making some choices and sending Tommy a slew of them he’s come back with some very full answers to your questions, so big in fact that I’m having to split these up.
So let’s start shall we?
ArchangelUK: First up a question that was discussed on the forums a fair bit actually…
Alex Tomalty: How did you become a Sonic fan and what Sonic games to you own?
Tommy Tallarico: I’ve been a Sonic fan from the very beginning. The Genesis/Mega Drive was always one of my favoite platforms… both to play games on and to write music for. The first time that drew me to Sonic was the amazing music. Hearing Green Hill Zone for the first time just blew me away. It’s one of those songs that you just instantly like the first time you hear it. I was also drawn in by the amazing speed of the character. I remember just being in awe that a character, level and graphics could move that fast. What were they calling it at the time?? Blast processing or something? Whatever it was… it was damn cool.
I had the privilege to work on a lot of really fun games for the Genesis/Mega Drive back then. Games like Global Gladiators, Cool Spot, Aladdin, Earthworm Jim 1 & 2… and that first Sonic was always our standard for excellence. We all adored and worshiped that game.
That being said, I’d be lying if I said I’ve been happy with where the Sonic games and franchise have gone. Maybe I’m just more of an old school type of guy, but I always thought the 2-D Sonic games had more playability and fun factor than the 3-D stuff. I hope that statement doesn’t offend anyone, it’s all just personal opinion and taste I suppose. But I really have a fond place in my heart for the 2-D Sonic stuff.
Stomp224, Urtheart, Leslie Wai: What made you want to compose for games, and how do you think it differs from composition for other media such as film?
TT: My whole life, my two greatest loves and passions were music & video games. But growing up, I never thought to ever put the two together. Of course, when I was growing up in the late 70’s, early 80’s… there was no such thing as a video game composer! Music had always been around my family – my cousin is Steven Tyler from Aerosmith. His real name is Steven Tallarico, so I always kind of grew up idolizing him and the work that he did. So, I never thought it would be out of my reach to do something similar. My parents were products of the 1950s so I started playing piano when I was three years old, to Great Balls of Fire (Jerry Lee Lewis), Elvis Presley and stuff like that – but I always played by ear. It wasn’t until the late 70s, when I started to hear these amazing film scores from things like Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Rocky that I felt like I wanted to be a composer. That’s when I started getting into classical music – my favourite being Beethoven – and that’s how I learned to write scores for symphonies and orchestras, by listening to the masters such as John Williams and Beethoven.
When I turned 21, I left my parents to go out to California. I was looking for a career in the music industry. I didn’t know anyone, I didn’t have a job, no place to stay, no money, no friends, nothing. I just drove out there, showed up in Hollywood, and—let’s just say it doesn’t look like it looks like on television. The only other thing I knew was Disneyland, so I stopped a homeless person on the street, asked him where Mickey Mouse lived, figuring that must be a pretty cool place to be, and he pointed me down to Orange County. So I drove into Orange County and I picked up a newspaper and saw a job at Guitar Center. I was homeless. I was actually sleeping under a pier at Huntington Beach for the first three weeks I was out in California. But the first day I picked up a newspaper, saw the job, went down there the next day, and they said, “You’re hired, you start tomorrow.”
The first day I showed up for work, I was wearing a video game t-shirt and one of the first people who walked in the store that day was a producer from Virgin. They were starting a video game company right down the street, and he saw my shirt and he was like, “Whoa, you’re into video games?” I’m like, “Yeah, are you kidding me?”—I started reeling off everything I knew. And he says, “Do you want a job? You start tomorrow.” I was hired as a games tester, and I would literally bug the vice president of the company every day, saying, “Whenever you need music, just let me know. I’ll learn how to do it, and do it for free, and if you don’t like it, you don’t have to use it.” So about three or four months later, one of the first games that I was actually a producer and tester on was [the 1992 GameBoy] Prince Of Persia. And I asked him to do the music. They made me the full-time music guy after that.
In regards to how game composing differs from any other media, I think we’re always going to be different from film and television just because of how the medium is presented. Television is a very linear medium for example; you may only get a few seconds where your piece is used in the foreground. The reality is that film and television are by nature… stories, and that story is told through dialogue – because of that music is very much considered as background material to push the dialogue forward. With video games, the action drives the story, concept or main goal, so we get to create music that 80-90% of the time is the big action sequence.
Even great composers like John Williams are restricted in how he creates music, because he still has to sit down with George Lucas who tells him what music to create at which time frame. Because of the linear nature of the medium, the direction will very much be… “At 1:51 the music changes to dark and
moody as Darth Vader just walked into the room, and at 3:42 the music needs to do this because the Death Star blows up”.
In game development, a designer will come to me and say, “Here’s the deal. There are a hundred guys on horseback with swords coming at you, and they’ve all come to kick your butt. Write me a three minute piece of music!”. From there my mind can go wild, as I don’t have the restrictions of a film or TV
composer, and even then the interactivity can send me in different directions. For example, I’ll have this theme for 100 guys kicking my butt, but I may have to do a different interactive branching theme for 10 guys kicking my butt, and another if everyone was gone.
It’s this kind of diverse appeal and approach that we have that I feel that if Beethoven were alive today, he’d be a video game composer.
Hero Of Legend: With Sonic & The Black Knight how many tracks did you produce and what were they in relation to?
TT: First let me say at what a GREAT honor it was to be contacted by SEGA of Japan to work on this franchise. It was a dream come true! Along with Mario and Zelda, I can’t think of another franchise that I hold so dear to my heart. A few years ago I had invited longtime SEGA composer Jun Senoue to one of my Video Games Live shows in San Francisco. I had always been a fan of his work and when my friends at SEGA in the U.S. said he’d love to come out to one of our shows I was really excited. I believe it was at that first meeting that I might have given him one of my soundtracks… but I don’t remember exactly. We kept in touch over e-mail and eventually he moved back to Japan. I couldn’t believe it when he sent me an e-mail asking to do a few tracks for the game. He also mentioned that my very good friend Richard Jacques would be working on the title as well. Along with Koji Kondo, Nobou Uematsu, Jason Hayes (Warcraft) and Michael Giacchino (Medal of Honor)… Richard is one of my favorite game composers and by far one of the most talented. It’s extremely rare in our industry that Japanese developers go overseas for music. I mean, sure I’ve worked on a bunch of games put out by Japanese companies like Konami, Capcom, Namco, etc. but you’re never asked directly by the Japanese… it’s always something like a U.S. or European developer who was doing the game for the publisher who had a secondary office in the U.S. Very rare that is directly with Japan. The only other time I had been asked to do something like that was when I worked directly with Miyamoto on Metroid Prime… again… one of the highest honors I think any person working in the industry could ever dream of.
Jun had given me a couple of movie files for different levels and the challenge for both me & Jun was to see if I should focus on doing orchestral or rock-n-roll… or maybe a combination of both. I ended up sending Jun about 7 or 8 quick 30 second demos. Some just orchestral, some just rock and some that had a little of both. Originally I was only supposed to be commissioned to do 2 songs that were 2 minutes each in length. Jun and the producer ended up liking 3 of the demos I had sent so they asked me if I could do 3 instead of just 2. Of couse I said “HECK YEAH!” They were leaning towards the more orchestral stuff and a few of them had some possible guitar parts. Both myself and Jun play guitar so I had asked Jun if he would like to play on 2 of the songs. I always love the idea of collaborating with other composers and musicians and he agreed.
To be honest, I have no idea what the final names of the 3 songs are (I guess I should ask Jun!) and I’m not sure which levels they are going to end up in. My inspiration for the project was to try and write great music that people would want to hear even after they turned the machine off. My love and knowledge of the franchise and character was enough to go on for me in order to write the music.
AAUK: I always refer to Sonic, Mario and Zelda as “the holy trinity” of video gaming personally. We’ll find out those and get back to you!
JezMM: Are you given a brief or do you get to actually play/view the levels/scenes you’re composing tracks for to get inspiration? And if you do play, do you imagine the overall “sound” or instrumentation of the yet-to-be music or get particular melodies in mind?
TT: Whoops! I should have read ahead… I guess I kinda answered that one above.
AAUK: Now there was a lot of interest in this next question!
Ex Shad, Vger, Eric Bradford, Nathan Gamer, PJMan & PsychoSk8r: Did you take inspiration from any particular past tracks – directly or indirectly, like a remix, or a musician from older Sonic games?
TT: I would have loved to have been able to take the original Sonic theme and mess with it. I was able to do something similar when I worked on a lot of the Pac-Man games with Namco… or the Bond game I worked on. I’m not exactly sure if SEGA owns 100% of the rights to that original music or not. I believe we had to go through a few different companies (including the original composer) to get the rights to play it in Video Games Live. But to directly answer the question… I didn’t really take inspiration from past tracks, I just kept imagining the Sonic character and all my Sonic experiences and how I would imagine it sounding like (without being able to use the older stuff).
Back for part two, with talk on Tommy not liking Shadow, Video Games Live, technical questions on his SBK work and those of you disappointed by no Sonic at VGL London 2008? We’ve got some good news for you!
ddrfr33k, alundril: What instruments and/or sample boards do you use normally and where there any instruments you’ve not used before for Black Knight?
Tommy Tallarico: I use a bunch of different stuff… so much so that I don’t even know what half of it is even called. A huge amount of string, horn & percussion libraries I’ve gathered over the years. Sometimes it’s a bit of one and a little part of another. It’s really a huge mess of different stuff thrown together. I’m a PC guy so I use the sequencing program SONAR when I’m writing and recording in MIDI. Sound Forge for my editing and sound design and VEGAS for all my post-production stuff. I also use VEGAS for all the video and music editing I do for Video Games Live. I just love that program.
There weren’t any new instruments I used for this project.
BlastedPinata: Were you surprised when SEGA asked you to produce music for a game with Sonic being a knight?
TT: Hehehehee… yeah! Being a big fan of the franchise, I had heard about the game and was following it before they had asked me to work on it. Again, to be totally honest (and I really hope I’m not offending anyone) I was just so disappointed with the Shadow game. I really think the franchise might have hit rock bottom with that one. (AAUK: Poor Shadow, I’ll still defend you little fella…) It’s a little strange to me for Sonic to have a sword but I also think it’s kinda cool that they’re putting him into an era and time we’ve never seen. It will be interesting to see how it comes out. I haven’t played the game so I can’t really pass any kind of judgement until I have a chance to sit down and really go through it. From a visual and audio standpoint I’m a little bummed that it is only being done for the Wii. I’m a bit of a graphics nut honestly and I also love being able to create music in 5.1 surround on the 360, PC or PS3. But hopefully they’ll be able to push the system to it’s max and we’ll get something special.
AAUK: A technical question now…
JEV3: One other aspect of game soundtracks that sets them apart from other kinds of tunes is that they have the reputation of providing a higher emphasis on ambiance and synthesized sound. Have you used these specific devices often and do you have any observations on how these are, or ought to be used? How do you feel about this kind of music versus orchestrated (such as “Super Mario Galaxy”) or playlist (such as “Red Alert”) focused video game music?
TT: I think every game and every genre can have a different approach. I like composing in all the different types of interactive and non-interactive ways you’ve described above. It’s a lot of really hard work and time to get a soundtrack truly interactive… and so many different ways to accomplish it. I enjoy the challenge of that or else I wouldn’t have stuck around for as long as I have. But I always enjoy just creating a great piece of music and recording it with a big orchestra and then mixing and mastering it in a big Hollywood studio. They both have their advantages and disadvantages and the cool thing about working in the video game industry is that you can kinda just make up the rules as you go along. There really isn’t any kind of industry standard on how to do things. We all kinda just make it up as we go and I think that’s a really fun and creative way to work.
Luisa Balbi: As a long time composer, did you ever thought an orchestral event like Video Games Live would have such a success among the younger generation? Do you think it has a lot to do with feelings of nostalgia or that nothing like the event has happened before?
TT: My goal in creating Video Games Live was that I wanted to prove to the world how culturally significant and artistic video games have become. I didn’t want to just put on a stuffy classical concert for hardcore gamers, I wanted to do a show. Not necessarily even a concert, but a celebration of the video game industry and so the way we designed the show was with everyone in mind.
You don’t have to know a thing about video games in order to come out to the show and be entertained and have a greater appreciation for video games in general and specifically game music. Most of the letters and emails we get after a performance are from non-gamers saying things like… “Wow, we never knew video games were this powerful an art form, we now see why our kids are so into them, thank you”. They understand it and we can present it in a form that they can appreciate.
Parallel to that, it’s also ushering in a whole new generation of young people to come out and appreciate a symphony.
We really had two goals in mind with Video Games Live. Our first was to prove to the world how significant video games have become and how culturally and artistically relevant they are. They are pieces of art, whether in itself or the characters or music or storyline. That’s why we set it up the way we did – VGL isn’t just about the music, but about all the other elements of games. Visuals, art, special effects, characters, interactivity, storyline, etc.
Really the other reason for Video Games Live was to establish a live orchestral concert, and to really showcase the art of orchestral music as well. What we want to do is to generate some interest in it, by making it more relevant to the younger generation – unfortunately, it doesn’t seem as if a lot of younger people connect with current symphony presentations and music. With VGL we’ve taken a lot of the things many people can connect with, like the rock and roll lighting, cutting-edge visuals, stage show production and interactive segments and give the orchestra a video game flavor so the audience can really appreciate the music itself as well.
It’s having an effect all over the world which is great – we’ve played to sold out audiences in Korea, Taiwan, New Zealand, Mexico. We’ve done three or four weeks at time in places like Brazil and Canada. We’ve played in Portugal, Spain, Scotland, Germany, France, England and of course all over the U.S. It’s been an amazing 4 – 5 years!
Stomp224, LiQuidShade: Video Games Live was a great show, but I was disappointed that the Sonic medley didn’t make it in the show when you guys came to London last October. Can you say whether or not it will be making an appearance next time you return? Now you’ve worked on Black Knight can we expect some to appear at future Video Games Live event?
AAUK: Ha ha, somehow I thought that one would turn up. I seem to recall quite a few people asking you about where Sonic was (including me). Adding on to that I seem to remember you saying there was a “new” Sonic piece for VGL in the works – any news on that?
TT: Hahahhaa! Welcome to my nightmare! With all of the amazing game music (classic and current) it’s absolutely impossible to put together a setlist that every single person is going to enjoy 100%. Our goal is to always change the show and return to places each year with a new performance. We’ve created over 50 segments for the show over the years and can only play about 20 a night. We’ve performed almost 100 shows now and none of them have ever been exactly the same. The reason we didn’t play Sonic in London in 2008 is because we had previously played it in 2007 and 2006. So we wanted to change it up a bit and give the folks something different and unique each time.
For example, some of the new stuff that was played in London in 2008 were segments like Castlevania, Metroid & Guitar Hero. That being said… I got SO MANY people in London who came up to me saying… “WHERE WAS SONIC!” (some with tears in their eyes!) that I’ll NEVER do another UK show again without including Sonic!! That I will promise!
AAUK: You heard it here first folks!
TT: Me & Jun [Senoue] are talking about putting one of the pieces I wrote for this game into the show. Might even get him to come out to a few of the shows (if his schedule permits) to play guitar with me! A big London, Tokyo, New York or Los Angeles show would definitely be a great time to have him come out. We’re definitely talking about it.
Aurora Redwinters: What would you say was your favourite soundtrack from your work to date?
Tommy Tallarico: I have two favorites for different reasons. The Earthworm Jim franchise (1 & 2) was one of my favorites because of the team and the fact that we had no rules. Our goal was to make each other laugh during the making of those games. There wasn’t really a game design document or layers of producers or publishers telling us what to do. We were just a bunch of good friends in a room trying to make each other laugh. And I think that passion really came out in the final product. I was pretty much given carte blanche to do whatever the heck I wanted musically… so sometimes I would do a serious electronica/techno/rock piece… and other times I’d do a silly funky banjo tune. There were no rules… and that’s just the way we all wanted it. So that one was a lot of fun and I really liked the diversity of music that I was able to put in there.
The soundtrack I’m probably the most proud of is Advent Rising. The game itself tanked pretty hard (which is always a shame for the folks working on it). I spent over 2 years working on that one. My whole life I always wanted to do an Italian Opera so I convinced the designers that it would be a really cool way to go and they agreed. I think that some of the music in Advent Rising is some of my personal favorites that I’ve done from an orchestral standpoint.
I also need to quickly mention The Terminator for the Sega-CD. I was able to do a ton of rock-n-roll which is my real routes and background from when I was a child. It was also one of the very first games to use a live guitar.
Slide20xl: I’m looking to get into the video games music industry, what would you recommend?
TT: If you want to get into video games, there are three or four things you can do that will get you in, if you have the talent. But the biggest advice I have to give to everyone before I get to those four things is that talent isn’t everything in this industry. Talent is 50 percent of it; the other 50 percent is networking and being able to sell yourself. If all the people out there spent as much time working on the networking as they did on the talent aspect, they’d go a lot further.
People are afraid to say that sometimes. They want you to think that it’s all about your chops and your composing. But I’m here to tell you it’s not. I’m not the best composer in the video-game industry — or even close… I’ll leave that recognition to people like Michael Giacchino & Uematsu-san. But I’m one of the best networkers… which is why I get a lot of work and have been fortunate enough to have worked on over 275 games over the past 18 years. The four things I have to say all have to do with networking and not the talent side.
How do you get into the video-game industry doing music? The first thing is to join the Game Audio Network Guild (G.A.N.G.). G.A.N.G. is non-profit organization I founded over 7 years ago. In fact, Richard Jacques is heading up our European division and Advisory Board. It would take me a lot of time to explain exactly what it is, but please check out www.audiogang.org to get an idea.
The second thing I’d recommend is to go to the Game Developers Conference (www.gdconf.com). GDC is the best place to meet producers, designers, and other audio people, of course, and to learn from the masters who are doing game audio already. It’s not just technical; it gives you information about business and the creative aspect and marketing yourself, as well as having a huge job fair where all of the developers and publishers looking for people are sitting right there.
The third thing is to join the IGDA, the International Game Developers Association (www.igda.org). That’s also a non-profit organization, and they have a ton of local chapters all over the world. If you’re just looking to get into the industry, there are a lot of other people just like you but who are programmers, artists, or smaller developers.
The great thing about the industry right now is that you don’t have to get hired to work on a big $20 million-budget project. You can get in the game industry by working on somebody’s cell-phone game that has a $50,000 budget.
The fourth thing is to read and get information. There are a couple of great books out there. There’s The Complete Guide to Game Audio, by Aaron Marks, and the other great one is from Alexander Brandon and is called Audio for Games: Planning, Process, and Production . You can find them both on places like Amazon.com. These are two fantastic books that give you great insight on the “how” aspect of making audio for games.
AAUK: Some excellent advise there, hope that helps Slide2oxl. The next question comes from a failed Space Invader and his hat.
T-Bird: It’s well known that you do, and have done, a lot of charitable works such as GRAMMY In the Schools and other non-profit events, as well as being associated with the Game Audio Network Guild; what is your motivation to encourage the youth of today to appreciate, as well as to possibly encourage a career in the video games music industry?
TT: Thanks for the question and kind words. My motivation is simply to provide information and opportunities to people who have passion but maybe not all of the knowledge and information to succeed. I wish there were places that I could have gone when I was growing up to give me info about this kind of stuff. I love the feeling of helping to make someone else successful. I think that once I got to be successful in music, the challenge becomes to bring others along for the ride and help them to achieve their goals and dreams as well. I don’t understand how it could be fun at the top without the knowledge of knowing you were able to provide information and bring others with you. It’s one of the best feelings in the world to be able to help others. No reason for anyone to be selfish with success or the knowledge of how to achieve it. It’s all about karma. If you’re the type of person who is always giving… it always comes back to you, and sometimes in a greater way.
Next time we gotta get ya winning in Space Invaders! You still did pretty good though!
AAUK: Perhaps on the fifth anniversary at London you can get the previous four Space Invaders to face off against you or Jack!
Richard A: I grew up in the 90’s watching gaming TV shows and remember seeing your bio on one of them. Congrats on your success in the industry. In the bio I remember seeing you at an expo wearing a gold sports coat with gold glasses. My question is do you still have them and if so do you still wear it?
AAUK: Anything you say may be taken down and used as evidence against you Tommy…
TT: Hahahhahaa!! Wait hold on… let me explain!
Back in the early 90’s I would do a bunch of crazy stunts (especially at game conventions) in order to get my name out there. Back then, there weren’t a lot of independent audio folks and no one knew the people who actually worked on games back then. Most publishers wouldn’t even post credits in games because they were afraid that other companies would find out and steal them away (which btw… happened all the time!). It was a much different industry back then. So, in order to get some marketing and PR attention and to get my name and work out there, I would always pull some crazy PR or marketing stunts. A couple of years (I believe it was back in 1993 & 1994) I showed up at CES (before E3 existed) and the first E3 in an Elvis gold jacket. I would parade around with models on my arm and bodyguards surrounding us while midgets would run around handing out Tommy Tallarico Studios crayons, stickers, pretzels, rubber ducky’s, etc. It was pretty funny. I think some people (who didn’t really know or understand me) took it the wrong way and thought I was being a complete egotistical douche. But I guess they just didn’t get the joke. Either way… it totally worked in my favor and some 15 years later here we are still talking about it. I guess it worked!
Joshua Romack: What do you think of fan made remix sites like OC Remix?
TT: Absolutely freakin’ LOVE THEM! I seriously get tears in my eyes when I hear someone from halfway around the world who did some remix of some tune I wrote almost 2 decades ago. It really is heart warming to know that people really care that much. And it’s quite an honor as well. I do everything I can to support sites like OC Remix. I specifically mention OC Remix during Video Games Live as well. I’m a big fan!
I always use those sites to point out to people how much video game music is loved and adored by people all over the world. People love to sometimes compare video games to movies… where are all of the websites dedicated to people remixing movie music? Video games have become the entertainment of choice for the 21st century and websites like OC Remix are the proof in my opinion.
AAUK: From a Sonic point of view, Hedgehog Heaven and Project Chaos are awesome in my opinion. Actually one of the things I wanted to do coming in was to do something with OC Remix – then Capcom did their thing sadly. It wasn’t just going to be an excuse to get to talk to pixietricks. Honest. *Ahem* Our final question from a Blognik regular.
Diogo: Seeing as how much music has advanced in video games where do you think that it will go from here? Right now for some games the music score is of the same quality as the game so it would be interesting to see what you think can still be improved.
TT: In regards to production quality I don’t think it can improve. Sure the overall industry can get better as a whole… but it is possible that we’ve hit the ceiling in regards to production quality and interactivity… when done properly. Now we just got to get everyone on board and taking the time, spending the money and doing all of the necessary things in order to really push the limits of quality. I understand that every team, developer, game engine, etc. is different and there are always crazy challenges that we’re up against. Everything from budget constraints to time restrictions and technological freedom. But look how far we’ve come since the turn of the century. It’s really incredible! It has taken us less than a decade to go from low budget & production to competing (and beating) the same level of film scores… which by the way… have budgets sometimes 10 times of what we do! It’s a fantastic time to be in the industry and things are only going to continue to get better!
AAUK: Tommy thank you very much for your time and answering all those questions.
TT: No worries. The questions were really awesome and it’s an honor and pleasure to be a part of the Sonic community and family now! Please let me know if anyone has any follow up questions or other things they would like to ask. I’ll always make myself available. Thanks so much for the interest!