We talk to Killzone Mercenary composer Walter Mair

We talk to Killzone Mercenary composer Walter Mair

Classically trained in Vienna and now based in his personal state-of-art studio in Soho, London, Walter Mair has worked with commercial clients and film-makers worldwide. His former projects include feature films such as ‘Alone in the Dark’ and ‘The List’ plus commercials for BMW, Mercedes Benz and Samsung, showcasing a diverse repertoire that spans from dramatic full orchestral scores to hybrid electronic tracks featuring found sounds and solo instruments.

Most recently, Walter wrote the score for Sony’s Killzone: Mercenary video game, successfully filling the shoes of former Killzone composer Joris de Man by capturing the emotional drama, fear and undying courage of war through an impressive hybrid score.

Upon discovering that synth-fan Walter uses virtual instruments from many Time+Space brands, we caught up with him to find out more about the soundtrack and his studio set-up.

Hi Walter, first things first, how did you originally get into scoring for video games and movies?

I started writing music when I got my first synthesizer (Korg MS20) and later on bought myself an Akai 1000 sampler. The music was very electronic-sounding back then. I took piano lessons to improve my playing skills which greatly benefited my writing. In order to enrich the palette of instruments and sounds I can work with, I decided to study music composition at Vienna University and continued my studies in Salzburg with the focus on music composition for motion pictures.

I then joined a post-production facility in Frankfurt where I got to work on my first movie ‘Alone in the Dark’ starring Christian Slater and Tara Reid. This was the first time that my music was used in a movie and recorded live with an 80-piece orchestra. We also licensed quite a few of my tracks to the ‘Grand Theft Auto’ franchise which was my first professional contact with video games. Two years later I moved to London and opened a sound studio in Soho where I have been working ever since on movies and video games.

For our customers who haven´t heard the sounds in Killzone: Mercenary, how would you describe them?

The music for ‘Killzone: Mercenary’ is a hybrid score, a blend of real instruments and synthesized sounds. The soundtrack features tracks of slower pace for the stealth missions and fast-paced action cues for all the fighting sequences. The latter feature live recorded drums mixed with synthetic drums and big booms that were specifically created for this title. Stealth and tension tracks feature a rich soundscape that consists of many live recorded instruments that were heavily processed to create an interesting and ever-evolving texture.

And how did you go about creating those sounds?

I recorded a lot of sounds specifically for this project. To give you an example, we recorded a lot of different takes on a solo cello. I wrote some basic ideas that we would record in more abstract ways, like bowing the string with the wooden side of the bow instead of the horse hair, or we used metal bows to create more distorted sounds. At one time I bought a cello off eBay which I violently treated to produce more unique sounds. I drilled holes into the corpus of the cello and put smaller metal pipes through them. These were hollow on the inside and I filled them with shrapnel and other smaller metal objects. This would produce totally unique sounds that were very rich on overtones. But I didn´t just stop at the cello and also experimented with sounds on a violin and on a variety of percussion instruments. Needless to say it got quite messy at times but I think the results were totally worth all the experimentation and hard work.

How often do you get the chance to record live musicians / orchestras for video games these days?

Thanks to my clients I am in a lucky position that enables me to record most of my scores live. Sega´s ‘Viking: Battle for Asgard’ featured an 80-piece orchestra and a 40-piece choir which we recorded twice to create a very epic sound of 80 people singing at the same time. For ‘Empire: Total War’ we recorded an equally large setup but in addition to the orchestra we also recorded a huge amount of ethnic instruments from flutes to strings and percussion. But it doesn´t always have to be that epic and my music is often a lot more sparse and less orchestrated with maybe only a string quartet being recorded live and all other instruments are synths and other electronics.

Joris de Man was the composer behind the previous Killzone titles, in your opinion, were you approached for Mercenary because the game developers wanted a different type of sound? How do the sounds in Killzone: Mercenary differ (if at all) from those heard in the previous Killzone titles?

With the PS Vita and PlayStation 4 around the corner the developers decided to give the franchise a boost and take the music for Killzone on a different journey. This allowed me to come up with new and fresh ideas, what instruments to choose for the ISA and the Helghast, and ultimately how to sonically brand both factions. At the same time the overall sound had to stay true to the immensely successful franchise. As soon as I started developing ideas and sketches we all agreed that this new direction worked extremely well and I started experimenting more and more.

Are you a video games player yourself? Which type of games do you enjoy the most?

I played a lot in my younger teenage years but got to play less in my twenties. It was when I worked on Sega´s ‘Viking’ that I wanted to know where the benchmark for music in video games was and I started playing and experiencing games from a slightly different angle…much more analytical with a focus on what elements work and which don´t work that well in a game. Playing games is also a valuable part of research and I tend to play games regularly. Games like Battlefield 3, GTA V or Diablo 3 were strong titles this year and I enjoyed playing them. iOS games like Kingdom Rush, Fifa or Asphalt are also great fun.

We hear you have an extensive collection of synths - can you run us through a few of your personal favourites?

When I started writing music I only had a Korg workstation which was great as it covered many of the more basic sounds. I soon realised that in order to produce recordings I would need a different palette of sounds from other synthesizers. Some of my favourite go-to synths which are permanently wired in my setup are: Korg MS20, Moog Voyager, Moog Little Phatty, Access Virus TI Polar, Nord Modular G2.

Looking at the rest of your studio set-up - what other key pieces of hardware do you use?

The centre of my setup are 2 Mac Pros, both maxed out on RAM to host a vast selection of plug-ins and software instruments. About a year ago I replaced my trusted Adam S3 speakers with Focal SM9, which I love. Their low-end definition is amazing and this helps greatly when working on movies and video games. My audio interface is an Apogee Symphony I/O. All my smaller live recording sessions go through an Avalon VT-737SP preamp. A Mackie desk is integrated in the system to premix external synths and effect processors. Displays and hardware controllers are very important to me to keep the workflow lean and fast. I use 2x 23" Apple Displays, a controller by Smart AV "Tango" and Lemur on the iPad. The picture is being played out onto a 46" Sony Bravia TV.

Which DAW do you use and why?

I use Logic Pro and have been doing so from an early version number on, when Logic was still owned by Emagic. At that time it was the only sequencer that worked properly with ProTools hardware. I now run Logic native with only a Universal Audio card for extra processing power.

You own virtual instruments and effects from many Time+Space brands, which are your go-to titles and why?

Spectrasonics Omnisphere and Trilian are excellent titles as they combine so many different sounds in just one plug-in. I use a Mac Book Pro with an Apogee One interface for on the go or when I write music on journeys/hotels etc. Both libraries are always installed on my studio and mobile setup.

I discovered the plug-ins from iZotope about a year ago and have been using them ever since. Trash 2 is great for mangling sounds and adding subtle to heavy distortion to even classical instruments or heavy synths. The same goes for Stutter Edit which is so much fun to work with. Alloy 2 and Ozone are some of the best tools for mix and mastering and an essential part in my everyday Logic template.

I use an extensive collection of orchestral libraries including Symphobia 1&2, True Strike 1&2, and VSL Cube. These all have their very own sound and before I start working on a new project, be it a movie or video game, I refine my template in Logic or create a new one for this particularly new project. Symphobia sounds epic and great out of the box but to add more detail and a more human feel, I would mix-in instruments from VSL which offer great articulations and details for a more intimate and sparse score.

VSL´s Ensemble Pro is one of the best tools to connect the Mac Pro´s in my studio and helps stream audio and midi between the Macs which enables me to have my entire palette of sounds at my fingertips and instantly available.

Sample Logic´s Morphestra, Cyclone and Cinematic Guitars 1&2 are awesome for creating soundscapes and pulsing synth sounds. The same goes for Heavyocity´s AEON and Hybrid Two Project Alpha. I used these libraries on ‘Killzone’ and the upcoming feature film ‘The List’ (starring Sienna Guillory who plays Jill Valentine in the ‘Resident Evil’ movies).

Do you tend to buy virtual instruments to fit a specific task or do you buy anything certain brands release because of your previous experience of their products?

Definitely both, there are some brands that produce excellent libraries like ProjectSAM where I can almost blind-foldly pick one of their libraries and use them in a movie or video game. But there is always a project that requires a specific sound that I might have in my head but could need a few additional sounds which are not yet in my library. To create them with analog or dig/analog synths is not a difficult task but sometimes there is not enough time and to buy a library off the shelf doesn’t mean that you sound like everyone else. It is always the combination and the layering of instruments and sounds that defines your own sound.

Can you give examples of these?

For Sega´s ‘Viking: Battle for Asgard’ we recorded live orchestra and some of the bigger drums that were available at that time in the recording studio. But to provide the tracks with the extra low-end rumble I used True Strike 1 and 2. A similar situation happened on ‘Killzone’ where the orchestral samples and live recorded instruments were mixed with electronic sounds from my hardware synths as well as libraries like Project Alpha and Heavyocity. To provide certain cue points with gravitas I used samples of the excellent sounding Boom Libraries, especially Cinematic Trailer, Impact and Metal. The option to mix the unprocessed construction kits turned out to be a very valuable tool. I had total control over the sound and I could make sure that these effects don’t overlap with frequencies important to the orchestra and vice versa.

These days, when it comes to virtual instruments and samples pretty much every area is covered, but are there any gaps in the market from your own point of view?

There is a current trend towards epicness. A lot of composers want to sound bigger than whatever has been produced so far. This might work in a handful of scenarios like superhero movies but I am not sure we should hold on to this trend for too long. For me it has always been the combination of sounds that interests me and this can work in its most simple ways: you layer just 2 simple sounds to create a lively soundscape. For that I would like to see more libraries going back to basics and record smaller sounds in extraordinary ways, or create sparse sounds without putting on a plethora of distortion, delay and reverb. Less is definitely more and I would rather put those effects on myself as and when I need them. This also makes such a library a lot more versatile for those willing to add to the instruments in order to create their own signature sound.

How often do you record your own samples and can you give us some recent examples of this?

I get to record instruments for most of my projects, especially for movies and games. For ‘Killzone’ I recorded what I would call extended playing techniques where you would play an instrument in very unusual ways in order to produce more unique sounds. These range from techniques where you play the instrument with the wooden side of the bow instead of the horsehair, to replacing the original strings with much stiffer steel strings, or mount metal objects onto the corpus of the instrument to create overtone heavy sounds with heavy resonances. All these experiments result in an overall organic sound but have an artificial layer to it which makes them unique in sound. Ultimately this helps the music to sound different. I also do a lot of bigger orchestral recording sessions for games and movies and would always try to record extra takes which I can use for my very own sample library.

When you have a break from your work, do you tend to work on your own musical projects or do you like to get out of the studio and explore other interests and hobbies?

Most of the time a project is about to get wrapped whilst another one is already in its early stage of development. When there is a gap between projects I tend to look for new libraries/instruments and play around with sounds which often results in an idea I like which I might turn into a track on its own. Due to heavy work schedules I spend long hours in my studio and it is important to follow some hobbies aside from sitting in a chair in front of a computer. I try to do some sports regularly and I also enjoy travelling to more exotic regions. I like to collect certain musical instruments typical to an island or geographic region.

And finally, if you could pick your dream project, what would it be and why?

My dream project would be challenging and allow me to explore, record and mix sounds and instruments that enable me to come up with a unique sound for this project…a project where I can come up with my very own sound without limitations in time, budget and creative brief.

For more information on Walter Mair, visit: www.waltermair.com