You may have heard of Jeremy Soule; he's one of the most prolific musical composers around the video game industry. His resume reads like an all-star list: Guild Wars, Morrowind, Oblivion, Company of Heroes, Supreme Commander, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Secret of Evermore, and the list goes on. As a veteran to the orchestral composition scene, Soule has worked with some of the biggest developers and publishers while crafting original scores that accent and highlight fantasy realms and sci-fi battlegrounds.
He won the inaugural MTV Video Music Award for Best Video Game Score for his work on The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, and is still the only American-born composer to ever work on a Squaresoft game. Hit the break to read X-Play's exclusive interview with the man himself: Jeremy Soule.
How did you get started? I know you were in school and you sent out some demos to Squaresoft and LucasArts right?
I was burning a ton of money doing private studies at the university and my parents were both teachers so I pretty much had to make my own money, buy my education if you will. You know, a good sized family in the Midwest and it was just tough to make ends meet every month and of course any time you have to pay university professors on an hourly basis for private studies and they weren’t exactly handing out whole composition scholarships to a lot of the leading universities at the time, so I originally looked at this as “what can I do with my talent right now to make some money that I can apply to my education?” so that’s what happened. I eventually applied to 2 different companies, Squaresoft and LucasArts, and I ended up working for both companies and doing quite well with each. But square was the first company to listen to my demo and I started out working on the Super Nintendo.
When you were thinking about which companies to send these demos to, why SquareSoft and why LucasArts?
First of all I am and orchestral composer. I am not a musical sound designer. There’s a lot of music that’s being produced for video games and for films now using what I call prefab tools. A good example is a tool called Stylus, which some very, very famous video games have used Stylus. What this is is a lot of pre-recorded material like drum loops and ethnic chants and all that kind of stuff. A composer using these tools isn’t really composing, he’s more like compositing. And I’m just not really interested in doing a lot of compositing. I’m classically trained, for me I always believed that the best thing you can possibly hope for in a musical score, and the thing I think that works the best in terms of longevity and also the ability to kind of hum the tune is real melody and real harmony, not prefab tools, not drum and bass kind of stuff. I listen to that stuff to kind of keep tabs on it, but how many iterations of techno have we gone through? Of electronica, of urban goth? It just kind of comes and goes but the one thing that stays with us for years and years and years, and this goes back to my argument I made in 1997 for Total Annihilation, I went to Chris Taylor [designer of Total Annihilation], I said “look Chris, dock my salary for a year if this doesn’t succeed.” But rather than doing a Command Conquer approach, where they were using “I Am a Mechanical Man,” I said let’s do a Star Wars type score, let’s do some orchestra and that was before it was cool. Both Square and LucasArts jumped out at me. First of all I consider Uematsu-san to be the greatest composer in games and his Final Fantasy stuff is amazing. And of course John Williams on the Star Wars side is also amazing. I didn’t feel like I just go in and compose this kind of music, it was something I aspired to. I felt that if I had the opportunity to be an understudy at these companies I could grow my talent and hopefully would have been able to take my skills to the next level. I had no interest in pushing together prefab tools. To me the funniest thing about the prefab movement in music is that composers have been going around selling people on the idea of “you need something that’s custom tailored to your game” but why are we using drum loops that we hear every night on the History Channel or Discovery Channel? I can’t imagine John Williams getting on his drum loop program figuring out how to use Garageband for a Star Wars score. For me that’s what separates, metaphorically speaking, the men from the boys. Can you write in the style of Tchaikovsky? Can you write in the style of Brahms or Beethoven or even Stravinsky? And then put your own innovation and inventiveness on it to make it right now, right this minute. Substance, its all about substance and sentiment and things that work. Square’s scores and LucasArts’ by the same token, still holds up. Maybe the people that listen to “I Am a Mechanical Man,” maybe that’s their favorite song in the world. I just knew back then that thing probably wouldn’t be in the Billboard Top 40. Sorry guys, I like C & C but…
I did a score, Warhammer 40K. Because of what it was, they were really pushing to use Stylus and more of the construction and prefab tools. For me it was an experiment, and I’m probably not going to do that again. There were some things I really liked about the score, but in all honesty it was probably my least favorably received score. It seems like the more orchestration and classical techniques I do for a game, the more it pushes me to, you know not sort of say, denigrate the conventional music technique. I think that you can put electric motors and whirring sounds and monkey screeching and make it interesting. But that’s sound design, that’s not composition. And is it really truly original? Well not really. There were composers back in the day that used to do interesting things with instruments that they were not intended to do. For instance John Cage is famous for taking an axe to a piano and calling that music. His stuff is not going to be sourced for the next Peter Jackson movie.
I think it comes down to: can a composer write a really strong melody— and that’s something I’m still working on— and understand harmony? Melody and harmony are two things that really give pretty much substance to whatever it is you’re applying the music to.
I know you submitted a rearrangement of Terra’s Theme to Overclocked Remix. Tell me about why and how you decided to do it, and do you think a site like that is sort of taking established things and allowing musicians to sort of leap frog the material into their own creation, but sort of paying homage? How do you reconcile creating music from scratch and composing versus something like OCR that’s more about rearrangement?
The art of arranging is as old as music itself. There’s nothing wrong with arranging. In fact a lot of what John Williams does for his sequels is take leitmotifs from earlier films and put them in a new context and that requires a lot of skill and lot of talent. It’s not exactly firing up a drum loop program and holding a key down and some musician three years ago recorded a pattern and they’re claiming it as an original piece of music.
I know there’s some drum loop working and reworking that goes on with remixes. I did one piece for Overclocked Remix and if I get time I’ll do more. I wanted to encourage the community, at least do what I could in a small way to say “hey look, the act of self improvement in music and the ability of a composer to always be open to constructive criticism and to keep pushing the boundaries is a good thing.” I want people to not rely on software tools to come up with pre-concocted solutions and call that music. I want people to really learn how to compose music. Music is a literal language. As I said, you can almost plot bombing coordinates for the military with it, it’s that precise. There’s a structure, there’s a diction, there’s a grammar. I feel like so many composers now are reaching out to the more experienced composers and trying to find out the secret to writing music. I can say really, the secret is creating something that makes for a strong sentiment for someone, somewhere. To understand how to do that, you have to go through this learning process, and that’s what OCR is about, composers sharing ideas… The fact that they’re remixing existing ideas, it allows them to reverse engineer existing pieces of music to see how these things work. I reverse engineered Beethoven, Brahms, Stravinsky… all these works by these composers. I spent years and years and years studying musical history… I really think that whatever I can do to encourage people to take it to the next level is part of helping music thrive.
For someone out there who is learning music, reverse engineering as you say, is that the most challenging part of the learning process? And what has been most challenging for you as you have emerged in your career?
The biggest challenge with music for me is having the kind of control to create something at 3 or 4 in the morning and wake up the next morning and still like it, like “hey, I wasn’t completely crazy and out of my mind at 4 in the morning! That was actually a good idea!” That extends beyond the 24 hour cycle. I look back at some of the work I’ve done, and I will say there’s a period of time in my career where just the economics of the business and scheduling worked against me where I wish I would have had a little more time to work on a couple of these games. To create something that stands the test of time not only in the composers mind but in the mind of the audience, that to me is the holy grail.
I think the big challenge is being persistent. Calvin Coolidge, great president, I’ll paraphrase, he basically said “talent isn’t enough, intelligence isn’t enough, persistence is really the thing that gets through” and I think for anybody just getting started…once you’re far enough along in music you can do something. I think for the people just getting started, you have to find a way to have the sticktuitiveness, the diligence and get to the next stage.
You mentioned the economics of the industry. You have a record expansion of the gaming industry last year. Are you doing anything special with Artistry to expand with the industry?
I’ve heard from reliable sources that a peter Jackson production can easily have a multimillion dollar music budget. And this is true of Hollywood. I think the video game industry as always been about ingenuity and sort of thriving with the tools you have to make something good. For me to make a living writing music for the video game business, I was really, really, really lucky in terms of being able to carve out a spot. I think we have to look at the video game business as a field of specialists. Music can no longer be an afterthought with video games; it’s never been an afterthought with movies, all the way back to the 30s.
For me I follow the advice of J.S. Bach. He said if you want to be a great composer, compose every day. Specialization is absolutely key. The economics are starting to support more specialization, but we are a long way from having a million dollar video game music production, a long way from doing it. At some point the stakes will be high and they’ll[developers] realize that it’s money well spent.
When you told people that you were going to spend your life making music for video games, did you get a lot of laughs or weird looks?
Of course. When I was on the airplane first coming to Seattle, someone said “you’re a musician, you’re like Kurt Cobain. You know he killed himself?”
The funny thing is I feel really lucky to be able to make a living period. The underscore business is one of those places where there has been a continual need. I have seen so much more competition in video games. The market is saturated; we have 150 composers who are qualified to take a stab at it, at least from a resume standpoint. I try to keep some perspective on the kind of things I’m working with and also the people that I work with too. They all have aspirations. You really can’t fake it, you have to work in this business to learn it.
The one thing I’m going to say is that I think the music industry will get back up on its feet in a year or two. Not everyone is destined to write underscore music, not everyone is destined to pick up a cello. I wasn’t destined to be Lars Ulrich’s backup drummer [laughs]. I picked what I do and I live it and I breathe it.
The explosion image on your web site with the question mark: Fallout 3 maybe?
Not Fallout. That was a teaser for Duke Nukem. It wasn’t my idea. We’ll probably have some more hints for our Web site down the road. Duke was the game that came back. The game looks great and the team is working really hard. I got involved with it because I saw the game becoming a serious contender. I try not to put games into my schedule that I think are kind of sinking ships. I’ve certainly done that. That really sucks, you finish all this music and oh “we’ve canceled the game” and four months of your life have been for nothing. I hate that.
What’s the typical day for Jeremy Soule?
It gets more atypical all the time. I’m working on so many different projects, not just video games, but unrelated projects. I don’t tell my clients this, but I’m up well before 9 a.m. They expect me to probably rise at noon [laughs]
I’m sort of a hard person to categorize because I’ve done a lot of composing, but I feel like in some ways that’s just sort of underutilized me for what I’m doing. I’m co-writing/co-producing a film right now based on one of my concepts, one of my worlds. It’s going to be a major feature. I’m very, very intensely working on that. Another thing that is taking a lot of my time is working with Naxos records. Naxos is the largest independent classical label in the world and we are teaming up with them to provide thousands of hours worth of music into video games.
I usually start writing around 7 p.m. and I’ll work until about 3 or 4 in the morning, get five or six hours of sleep get back up and do it again.
Do you ever find time to play video games anymore?
I do. You have to. The problem is a lot of my games are not as fun as the games everyone else plays because my games tend to crash [laughs]. I get a lot of beta games, unfinished games. It’s like “ignore that NPC that’s just floating above the ground.”
Or that one with no face.
[laughs] Or the one that has no face and is halfway stuck into the rock. For me there’s nothing better than getting a lot of visual input for a game. I don’t always get live betas to work with, sometimes it’s not technically practical. But yeah, I do have a debugger installed. I have programmers that work at my company, so if we need to recompile something we can.
Thanks for talking with us, it’s been very enlightening.
Sure. I want to encourage young composers. It takes a lot of time to be a composer, a lot of effort, a lot of energy. You have to be a bit of a fanatic to do it. As a composer, chances are you won’t get a lot of encouragement, I know I didn’t when I first started. I would love to see more composers in this business. I’d like to see more people really writing harmony, writing melody, not relying on prefab sample/loop techniques. I would like to see more amazing talented people in this business. Go down to that library or music school, get those anthologies, study those scores, and listen to as much music as possible.