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Meet the Composers - Interview with Mass Effect's Sam Hulick

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Posted July 4, 2011 - By Rick Damigella



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Mass Effect's Sam Hulick

Sam Hulick is a name from the game audio world you may not know well yet, unless you are among the game music connoisseurs who purchase game soundtrack albums. The Feed got to speak with Sam Hulick about his inspirations and the music he has composed for games including the Mass Effect series. Hit the jump to find out what Sam’s inspirations were for the music he created as part of the Mass Effect team, what Howard Shore’s The Lord of the Rings music means to him and how Soviet Russia’s Red Army influenced his compositions for an upcoming World War II shooter.

The Feed Please tell us a bit about yourself and the projects you have created music for.

Sam Hulick I’ve been around music for most of my life. My dad was always in bands, as either lead guitarist or singer/songwriter or both. I think I started exploring writing my own music when I was about fifteen or so, using a new tracker program for the Amiga called MED. I graduated from that to OctaMED, then onto an Ensoniq VFX workstation synth in my dad’s studio. For me, music was always an important tool for self-expression. There was a point, though, where I noticed the video games I had been playing since I was a kid started upping the quality of music, and I started giving serious thought to making a career out of this. I spent several years honing my skills, researching the industry, getting my name out there, networking, and eventually got my foot in the door starting with Maximo vs. Army of Zin. But it was Mass Effect that really launched my career and led to me working on the sequel, and then landing my first solo gig, Red Orchestra 2: Heroes of Stalingrad.

The Feed Let’s talk about Mass Effect  more. This is a very highly regarded and award winning game soundtrack. That must feel pretty good to be involved with it.

Sam Hulick Definitely! I look back now and still can't believe that I got to work on such a hit title so early in my career. I feel really fortunate.

The Feed And Mass Effect 2 won even more awards. How does it feel to be a part of such a huge franchise?

Sam Hulick It’s pretty incredible. The amount of award nominations for Mass Effect 2 as well as its soundtrack was staggering, not to mention the fact that the score was nominated for a BAFTA award!

The Feed How much music did you create for the two games?

Sam Hulick I wrote about thirty minutes of music for each game. I created pieces such as the “Mass Effect Main Theme,” “From the Wreckage,” “Sovereign’s Theme,” “Victory,” “Uplink,” and many more.

The Feed What, if any, inspirations did you draw from in creating the Mass Effect game's musical motifs?

Sam Hulick We drew heavily from Vangelis and Tangerine Dream as our initial references and inspiration, but I think ultimately the sound transformed into something that's uniquely Mass Effect. One of the very first reference tracks supplied by BioWare that I listened to in order to get into the multi-textured multi-layered synth sound was "Love on a Real Train" from the Risky Business soundtrack. It's a great piece and if you listen to it; you can definitely hear where Mass Effect gets some of its influence. Mass Effect 2 was a natural progression and maturation of the first score, though with a bit more of a darker and cinematic edge.

The Feed What was the most challenging thing about creating the music for Mass Effect?

Sam Hulick Mass Effect was a totally new musical approach for me, so right off the bat I was investing in new sounds and learning a few new aspects about synthesizers that I had never really delved into in such depth. I mean, really, the whole project was a challenge because of all of these new experiences. It was the most music I had ever written at the time and the first project where I was very involved from start to finish; it was the first time I was writing music for something where the music was really super important to the development team and there was a lot riding on the end production. Sounds like a lot of pressure, and it was to some extent, though being able to write on a team with Jack Wall at the helm provided sort of a “safety net.” In a sense it was a learning environment where I could crank out the work but also have room to feel comfortable about not being familiar with the process. It was one of the greatest experiences of my career for sure.

The Feed Tell us a bit about how you like to compose. You use both electronic music and orchestras in your music. Do you have a preference for composing for one or the other?

Sam Hulick I enjoy using both of these styles in my work, though I will say that working with electronic sounds takes more time because you have to go through and listen to patches to see what they sound like, and build a palette from that which works for your project. Musicians know what an oboe sounds like, but it's a mystery what "Subterranean Hamburger" sounds like until you've hit a few notes. Some software synths such as Omnisphere have everything nicely categorized, so that helps, but for me there's still a lot of auditioning of sounds. I can’t really say I prefer one over the other, there are advantages to both, and sometimes it’s nice to layer in synth underneath an orchestra for some extra power.

The Feed What can you tell us about the music for the upcoming Red Orchestra 2: Heroes of Stalingrad?

Sam Hulick I really loved that this game called for a different musical approach than what people might expect from a WWII game. Tripwire Interactive wanted a more "old world" string-heavy sound, with a heavy emotional impact. Ultimately the goal was to produce a soundtrack that was still modern enough to be effective in a game, but have influences from classical Russian and German composers. I listened to quite a bit of Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, some Mussorgsky, Wagner, Beethoven, and Bruckner. Those were my six go-to sources for drawing inspiration and picking up rules of thumb I could apply to add a slight classical flavor to my music. On top of that, I went through a bunch of old Red Army choir stuff as well as a few Soviet marches.

The Feed Were there any particular challenges you had in composing for Red Orchestra 2?

Sam Hulick A lot of research time went into this before I even started writing any material. I spent some time with Alan Wilson, Tripwire VP and history buff. He walked me through the Battle of Stalingrad, giving me a rundown of the sequence of events and turning points in the war, with an emphasis on the mood of each part of the battle. He also sent me home with some WWII videos, including a documentary on the Battle of Stalingrad that had some pretty heart-wrenching stories recounted by veterans. The last bit of my homework was to watch Enemy at the Gates and Cross of Iron. So this was all really helpful to me in getting a feel of how brutal this battle was, and what these soldiers may have been feeling: triumph, loneliness, desperation, loss, pride, defiance. Aside from the historical and musical research time, injecting these emotions into the music was one of the biggest challenges.

The Feed Let’s go back to the beginning. Describe what it was like getting your first game scoring gig with Maximo vs. Army of Zin?

Sam Hulick It was really exciting! There’s nothing more rewarding than getting hired to work on a game score after you’ve spent so much time and effort breaking into the industry. I played a small part in my contribution, having written about eight minutes of original music, but it was a great way to land my first credit and get a foot into scoring music for video games as a profession.

The Feed What would be a dream soundtrack project for you? It can be any genre from Film, to TV or Games.

Sam HulicK Actually I've been dying to write music for a fantasy RPG. A lot of the games that have inspired me to get into scoring games were of that vein: Baldur’s Gate I & II, Heroes of Might & Magic III, Neverwinter Nights, to name a few. And then The Lord of the Rings movies came out, and I was obsessed with Howard Shore’s music for the trilogy. It’s still probably my favorite set of film scores of all time.

While we wait to hear what the music of Red Orchestra 2 sounds like and to see when Sam gets his first shot at a fantasy RPG, you can follow him on Twitter along with this article’s interviewer.

Meet the Composers - Interview with Mass Effect's Sam Hulick
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