Sound Test - Interview with Wally Shaw  

RPGamer: When first assigned to the Summoner project, how were you approached? Was it just an idea, had the writing team have a sample of the story for you to set the mood to, or were you brought in after the fact; when the visuals had been established and you had game-play and vision to set the soundtrack to?

Wally Shaw: I was hired after the game had been in production for several months. I had story and quite a few visuals to write to.

RPG: What was the process involved in writing the music? Did you start with an overtone as foundation (such as the tribal sounding drum sequences in Carados) and build up from there or do you simply start from point A and finish at point B; pattern by pattern, riff by riff, movement by movement?

WS: Each piece was very different in approach. With some of the levels that were finished, I just walked around a level and got a feel for what was going on. I'd read the story elements that pertained to the level and get a sense for the overtones. Then I'd write. For some pieces, I'd receive an inspiration completely outside of any finished piece of game. Then I'd write it and save it. Later, as levels popped into existence, I'd remember that a piece had been written that worked for this situation. For the cutscenes (like Carados) each piece was crafted to fit the finished visual·much like a movie score.

RPG: How much time did you put into a single piece on average? Were there pieces that took longer than others? How many songs did you write and how many were used in the game?

WS: Usually a day or so to write and a day or two to polish. That's an average. Some were magical and happened right away. Others took longer. There are approximately 150 pieces of music in the game. I wrote almost 200, but as the game progressed, some were definitely not working anymore. That's how it goes.

RPG: Do you feel you've successfully attained the "Be felt but not heard" aspect you noted in the Chapter 7 Designer Diary? What is your favorite ambience section of the game where you felt you've achieved this goal?

WS: For the most part, I do. Musically, there is very little I'd change.

If you mean ambience section as in ambient music·my favorite was the Random Ice Encounter and the Forest of Liangshan. Liangshan is just freaking creepy and I love it. I feel the ambience music really accentuated the feel of the level. The Ice Encounter just felt really cold and stark to me.

RPG: What kind of hardware did you incorporate into Summoner? Did you use live instruments, purely synthetics, or a mix of both?

WS: A broad mix of both. We sampled a ton of percussion. There are live guitars, both acoustic and electric. I even scored an oboe and trumpet part for the Forbidden City.

RPG :The acoustic guitar in "Iona2.mp3" has a flawless tone to it. I don't think I've ever heard such a good guitar sample. Was it pre-made or did you create it yourself?

WS: That was made by me by sampling with my Korg Triton. That's an amazing machine. It handles sampling in a way that you don't get with Akai's and Kurzweils.

RPG: There is a lot of feeling in these samples I've downloaded from the Summoner homepage. A general theme seems constant throughout each song. And while each piece may be radically different from the previous, they all still bear a reflective aspect to one another. And it is truly amazing. Was this your intent or did fortune smile upon you and tie all of your songs together with an invisible thread while you were in the can?

WS: Well, my office is right next to the can, which can be good and bad :) I've work through much inspiration there, as does any real musician.

Actually, the general theme was very much intended. What I decided to do was to use an old classical music convention: movements. In many classical pieces the composer develops a musical theme, called a motif, and uses it in various ways throughout several sections of the piece. A terrible analogy would be the music for the Brady Bunch. It's basically the same 6 note theme, but if Marcia did something funny it will sound comical. If Greg lost his father's favorite pen it will sound menacing. In Summoner, there were two basic motifs. There was a main motif that you'll find in various forms throughout the level music. There was also a boss motif that lets you know you're in for a whippin'.

RPG: What was your muse for creating such an extraordinary soundtrack? What did you look to for inspiration? Were there other composers you looked to for ideas?

WS: I did a lot of research into various cultures and their music. I spent a lot of time studying scales and instrumentation. But most ofmy work came from being in awe of the amazing visuals our artists gave me to work with. I mean, Iona is an incredible looking city and it inspired a cool track. I would have dreams about the lichen on the walls in the Caverns of Wolong and wake up with ideas floating around.

As for other composers I really get into Eric Serra (The Professional, The Messenger, The Fifth Element, Goldeneye). He's a great orchestra conductor and a great electronic artist. His marriage of both disciplines is light years ahead of anybody else. I also like the way Israeli producer Izhar Ashdot does pop music. He takes elements of traditional middle eastern music and twists them through synthesizers and samplers.

I spend a lot of time seeking out unknown experimental electronic artists like Mirwais (well, unknown until he produced Madonna's new album) and Amanda Ghost. And of course, I wouldn't be worth my salt if I didn't pay homage to Danny Elfman (Sleepy Hollow, Edward Scissorhands, The Simpsons).

RPG: In regards to sound effects, your description of all the elements utilized to bring the "Three Headed Gorgon Stalking His/Her Prey" was probably the best, and probably the most innovative, explanation I've ever seen. How long did it take you to develop this theory and did you incorporate it to all of the sound effects in the game? If so, how are you still sane? It must take a degree of and control and undying ambition to go through such a process I can't even fathom it.

WS: Most of the sound effects were done in this way, but not all. I hit a period where the workload around here reached critical mass and I couldn't spend as much time as I would've liked.

To answer if I'm still sane or not, one would have to assume that I had started out sane, which·

RPG: Were there times when the other developers came to you with an idea and you just did a "you want me to do what?" If so, did any of them make it to the game, how many tries did it take before you were able to give them what they wanted, and were you even sure that in the end it was what you thought they wanted in the first place?

WS: The way Volition develops games is very interactive. Everyone gets to voice their opinions even if it doesn't concern their specific discipline. Artists and designers generally comment to me after a sound or piece of music is made, not before. And I usually here more if they think its wrong than if they like it. No news is basically good news.

RPG: Any inside tips for aspiring Video Game Music Creators out there? Suggestions? Steps in the right direction? Number for a good shrink?

WS: Learn your craft. Inside and out. Know your music theory and your software so that you can do it in your sleep (during crunch time, you'll be expected to). Just because you can write cool tunes doesn't mean they'll work in a game. There's a lot of stuff to know about equalization, sample rate, compression (both audio and hardware) and general acoustics that goes into it. And unfortunately, you'll be expected to handle both disciplines of music and audio. I don't really feel like these have much in common, but you won't get the gig if you aren't excelling in both.

I'd give you the number for my shrink, but he's not very good.


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