Tom Salta on scoring for video games and using Spectrasonics instruments

Tom Salta on scoring for video games and using Spectrasonics instruments

Tom Salta´s soundtrack credits cover films, TV shows and advertising but it is his work on video game scores for which he is most recognised. Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands, Red Steel 1 & 2, Tom Clancy´s Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter 1 & 2 and Tom Clancy´s H.A.W.X 1 & 2 are just some of the popular video games featuring Tom´s work. From large-scale orchestral and choral tracks to unexpected intimate moments, Tom is an extremely versatile composer who incorporates the use of both live musicians and virtual instruments into his soundtracks. Knowing that Tom is a big Spectrasonics fan we got in touch with him to find out more...

According to your biography, you´ve toured and worked on releases by many well-known artists including Cher, Whitney Houston and Mary J. Blige – what did your work with these artists involve?
I was very fortunate to have a diverse range of musical experiences during the first fifteen years of my career before getting into games.  In the early nineties, I started touring with Bobby Brown as a keyboard tech and then I joined Mary J. Blige’s tour.  After several years of touring, I started doing more studio work and got into more producing, remixing and songwriting. For several years in the mid-nineties I was producing dance remixes with Junior Vasquez and that’s how I had the opportunity to work on projects for Whitney Houston, Cher and Peter Gabriel.

How did the shift occur from you working with such artists to writing audio media scores?
I’ve always been an avid video game player since the early eighties. As a kid, I went to the arcade every week and had most of the major consoles starting with the Atari 2600. It was always a big hobby of mine, but at that time I did not see these two worlds colliding… until 2001. Shortly after Halo: Combat Evolved released on the original Xbox I realized that my future was in games.

At this point, I had no idea how to break in and I knew it would be incredibly hard to re-establish myself in an entirely new industry.  I started by doing research on other game composers and attending all the game conferences. I already had fifteen years of record production experience so I concluded that my best approach would be to create a solo album of music that would be a good fit for video games, TV and film. That’s when I created “Atlas Plug”, an alter ego that I used to help establish myself in the video game industry.

With the help of my publisher, I started getting my music licensed in games and then gradually, my role evolved into scoring games.

Tracks from your debut solo album ´2 Days or Die´ have been licensed for a number of TV shows, commercials and movie promos – can you tell us which tracks have been used where?

Atlas Plug “2 Days or Die” has the rare distinction of every track having been licensed in film trailers, games, TV shows and commercials.  I’m really pleasantly surprised at how well the tracks have held up over the years.  It’s not typical for an electronic album to have a shelf life over a few years.  But “2 Days or Die” is almost eight years old and still holds up.  One of the most surprising placements occurred last year for a Toy Story 3 trailer.  They used “Halfway Till Bliss” which is a pretty aggressive track. I could not have imagined hearing Woody say “Reach for the Skies” over an Atlas Plug track. Now if I can just get the time to get that second album done!

What are the similarities and differences between how you approach writing a soundtrack for a video game and writing a movie?
  I’m often asked to give talks and presentations on this subject.  I usually incorporate two slides; one shows a flowchart representing music with circles and arrows connecting one to the other.  For film, the circles and arrows are in a straight line from left to right. This is because when you watch a movie everything happens the same way every time, including the music. This allows the composer to plan out everything in advance and score a scene from beginning to end. The music is “locked” to the picture.

When I represent game music in this fashion, I show a slide that has circles scattered in various places and arrows connecting everything in different directions.  This is because in games, you’re creating music to support gameplay that can change from moment to moment.  Each time you play a game, things don’t happen exactly the same way every time.  Therefore the music needs to be designed in a way that will change from moment to moment and support a variety of situations.

This can be done in different ways.  For example, sometimes the music will simply “switch” to a new piece of music, ideally in a way that sounds natural. Another common technique is to use multiple layers of music that can fade in and out depending on what’s going on in the gameplay. The end result should always feel seamless like it was meant to happen that way… and that’s where creating music for games can become very challenging both technically and compositionally.

When scoring for video games, it is often the case that the game itself is still in development so you must rely heavily on being able to imagine what the visuals are going to be in relation to the music, and of course a decent brief. Has there ever been an instance when you´ve seen a finished game that you´ve worked on and it´s rather different to what you imagined?

With a few exceptions like Prince of Persia The Forgotten Sands for Nintendo Wii, I usually don’t see any complete walkthrough of a game as I’m composing. Typically all I get is a detailed written document, some screenshots and maybe a few short video clips if I’m lucky.  So normally when a game I’ve scored is finally released, I’m very eager to see how it all turned out.  It’s one of the most enjoyable aspects of the whole process because I finally get to hear the music in the context that it was intended for. And now that I have kids old enough to play many of the games I work on, it brings a whole new level of joy and satisfaction to the process.

When you composed the soundtrack for H.A.W.X you initially created the entire score in your studio using orchestral software – which plug-ins did you use for this?
H.A.W.X 1 was first done virtually and then enhanced with a medium sized string orchestra, but still keeping all of the virtual orchestras.  H.A.W.X 2 had a smaller budget and was entirely virtual, with the exception of a small vocal ensemble.

For orchestral sounds, I primarily use Kontakt and PLAY running popular libraries like East West Quantum Leap Symphonic Orchestra, LA Scoring Strings and ProjectSAM.  I also have some older libraries in EXS-24 that I keep around.

You then went on to record with a live orchestra – is this something that a studio requests or is it your decision to record live musicians based on your budget?
I will always ask for and encourage a live recording budget because it really makes a big difference in most cases. The right orchestra recorded in the right room can really bring an added dimension and a human emotion into the score that virtual instruments simply can’t create.

One of your most recent projects was creating the score and percussive soundscape for Ubisoft´s ´From Dust´ video game for which you employed the help of some world-renowned percussionists. What were your reasons for working with live percussionists as opposed to utilizing sound libraries/plug-ins?
This was a very conscious decision right from the beginning.  The creator of From Dust, Eric Chahi, had a clear vision to avoid any “Hollywood” sounding elements in the entire game.  Most percussion libraries have a very clean and “perfect” sound to them.  In From Dust we wanted it to feel authentically tribal, organic and unpolished.  The running joke was the phrase “No Hollywood!”

 In order to make the most authentic percussive soundscape possible, I called upon two of the best percussionists I know who have a deep knowledge of African tribal music, Bashiri Johnson and Kimati Dinizulu.  I remember our first recording session for the prototype.  We experimented and recorded everything from Bashiri’s famous thousand-year-old pea pod, to tribal drums with brooms, to blowing in seashells.

Your chosen DAW is Logic Pro – why do you choose this over and above other music platforms?
Logic has always been my DAW of choice.  Back in 1991, I was using Logic’s ancestor, Notator on an Atari ST.  There’s really been no reason to switch for me. Years ago I did use a ProTools TDM rig with Logic as the front end but when CPU’s started getting so powerful, I made the leap to 100% native using only Logic.

And I must mention that the timing of the Logic 9 release in the summer of 2010 couldn’t have been better.  I think it was just a week after Flex time was introduced that I had the first recording session for From Dust and it was a complete lifesaver.  I recorded well over one hundred tracks of different percussion performances and used Flex time on each one. It enabled me to tighten up the performances so they all locked together perfectly. From Dust also required me to deliver the same cues at different tempos and re-recording everything would have been impossible.

You´re a big Spectrasonics fan, could you tell us what it is about each of the instruments that appeal to you most and which features you find yourself using time and again?
Spectrasonics, headed by Eric Persing, is really one of those companies that is part of my musical DNA.  I own and used every one of their libraries even before Atmosphere, Stylus or Trilogy existed.  There’s something about Eric’s sensibilities when creating libraries that really resonates with me and the kind of sounds that inspire me. I consider him the godfather of sound designers and I know he has inspired many of the people creating sound libraries today.

OmnisphereIt’s a staple in my studio used on 99% of everything that I do. The variety of sounds is staggering and it’s easy to use.  It’s also extremely powerful under the hood if you want to roll up your sleeves and get into deep programming…which I try to avoid as much as possible these days. :)

Stylus RMXAnother Staple in my studio… quick, easy and powerful.  It’s the go-to drum library I use for most things.  It’s also expandable and can import any REX libraries, commercial or even homemade ones.  That’s a huge bonus for me.

Trilian - My #1 bass library by far.  It covers a staggering variety of synth, acoustic and electric basses and has the same powerful and familiar interface as Omnisphere.

Do you currently/or can you see yourself in the future using the likes of tablets/iPad as a significant tool in the creation of soundtracks particularly with the advent of controller apps such as Spectrasonics´ Omni TR app?
I eagerly await owning my first iPad but I don’t have one just yet.  I definitely see myself using it as an additional tool in the studio, even if it’s just a controller.  I also know that it can be used on its own to create music but unless I’m in a pinch, I don’t anticipate using one when I have the option to use my main composition rig with all of my sound libraries and plugins. That being said, I often find that I can compose better melodies in my head than in front of a keyboard. I wrote every theme for the last game I scored by walking outside and singing into my iPod touch.

Are there any types of sounds out there that you find yourself needing for your scores but are difficult to track down, in other words, are there any gaps in the market when it comes to sounds/instruments for composing for video games?
These days you can pretty much find any sound library you want, from trash cans to Kazoos. But there are still those cases when custom recording is needed.  I just finished up a new project for a kid’s game releasing this holiday season that utilizes a new hardware peripheral for one of the major game consoles.  It required me to record myself crumpling and tearing up pieces of paper, opening and closing scissors and using markers and erasers in time with the music.  There is no way I would have found a library to do that… (hmm, maybe I should release that one.. ;)

How about the capabilities of virtual instruments – what are the current limitations you experience, if any?
The limiting factors are CPU and RAM.  I push my main machine, a MacPro 8 core with 16 GB, to the limit every day. Some libraries are more demanding than others, like Hollywood Strings.  With the current and future blazingly fast Macs on the market, I’m looking forward to trimming down my rig to just a few computers, all Mac.

And finally, what projects are on the agenda for you for the coming months?
Unfortunately, I can’t discuss what I’m working on now, but there are some exciting things on the horizon. I can mention that I recently finished working on the Halo Anniversary edition (releasing Nov 15) with my good friend and colleague, Paul Lipson.  It was a dream come true to help recreate the music that Martin O’Donnell originally created ten years ago.

Thanks, Tom, we´ll look out for further news on the ´Salta´s Stationery Samples´ release! :)

To find out more about Tom´s work, visit his website