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Q+A with Jesper Kyd
Old 1st December 2016
Don Solaris's Avatar
4 Reviews written
🎧 15 years
Q+A with Jesper Kyd

Interview with Jesper Kyd

From Amiga 500 demo scene all the way to the Assassin's Creed main theme. One of the rare people who started on a 16-bit computer from the 80's (that many used just for gaming) and slowly moved all the way to the top. Folks, Jesper Kyd makes some of the best ambient electronic and soundtrack music around. And that is a fact.

I've originally discovered him back in 2002 and my initial reaction was like... "hey this reminds me of F.S.O.L.", only to say a few days later: "... wait this sounds better than F.S.O.L.". What totally fascinated me was not just his excellent composition, but top notch sound design on top of that. I hate saying this, but he is heads and shoulders above some of the more famous "big" names in the industry.

Jesper Kyd is a Danish composer and sound designer, who started on the Amiga demo scene as a member of the cult demo group called Silents. He has worked on various video games, television, and film projects. He has composed soundtracks for the Hitman series, Assassin's Creed series, Borderlands series, Darksiders II and State of Decay, among many others. His scores use orchestra, choir, acoustic manipulations and electronic soundscapes.

Jesper recently scored the Crytek/Sony PSVR game Robinson: The Journey. Watch the trailer which Jesper also scored:

Excellent track from the now legendary Hitman series:

Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel "Helio":

Assassin’s Creed: Best of Jesper Kyd

Here's one point i'd like to bring to the Gearslut readers. The Hospital theme (from Hitman: Codename 47) is that what i find special about Jesper Kyd and what sets him apart from other composers. Not only he uses notes and chord progressions (i.e the way painter uses paint), but he also uses sound design to expand the painting. Here is a classical example:

This is where most of the other composers fail. This is what i find phenomenal in all of Kyd's tracks. The sound choices are not only spot on, but so often dominant portion that can take your imagination and play with it. To anyone studying film/tv composition i highly recommend the Hospital theme to do some analysis of it. It's full of brilliant ideas and motifs.

Jesper Kyd's gear list (Nov/2016):

Digital Synthesizers:
Access Virus Ti2

Analogue synthesizers:
Yamaha CS-80
Prophet 10
Roland SH-5
Roland Juno 60
Crumar DS2
EuroRack System
Elektron Analog 4
Elektron Keys
Elektron Octatrack
Moog SubPhatty

Effects Processors:
AKG BX20 Spring Reverb Tower
Eventide 7000
Lexicon vintage reverbs (model 200, 224x)
Delay, eq, compression, stomp boxes etc.

Dynamics, Mixers, Other:
Yamaha DM2000
Grand Piano

Amphion Two with Amp500

How did interview happen? Well, I've found a contact to Jesper Kyd almost by accident. His main web page was down and it was near impossible to contact him for a too long time. One day while browsing Facebook, I added his info (artist) page, on the list of my Liked pages when i noticed in a feed that a few days later someone did an update on that same page. Out of curiosity i've sent a message to that person if he can get me in contact with Jesper Kyd. Over the course of next 9 months we exchanged a dozen emails loaded with questions from both myself and the Gearslutz members that were interested in this interview.

Old 1st December 2016
Don Solaris's Avatar
4 Reviews written
🎧 15 years

Do you still follow the demoscene, i.e. listen to that kind of music, watch demos or even visit parties?

I did follow the scene for quite a long time after I left but have not followed the scene for a few years. Once in a while I check out the new demos released at the big parties and it's amazing to see the evolution and how artistic demos have become. I have not visited a demo party since probably The Party 2 in 1992. I do feel eternally grateful for being so involved and rooted in the demo scene.

The demo scene was a perfect place to learn how to make music without any constraints whatsoever. When the Swedish division of Silents asked us to join their group and we became Silents DK, we really wanted to show what we could do and it was a great friendly competitive place to grow up. Silents Sweden was an amazing bunch of guys and a couple of years after we joined they started a game company called Digital Illusions or DICE as they are called today.

In the demo scene I feel like we did everything we set out to do and more. Arranging our own Demo Party in 1990 (Silents - Red Sector) which was a huge success was so much fun. Around that time we all went to a lot of demo parties trying to figure out how to make great demos.

Then came "The Party" which The Silents co-sponsored and that went on for 12 years and became one of the biggest demo parties at the time. Performing our music at The Party 2 was another highlight. No one had done that before and I don't think people knew quite what to think. Creating the first video demo to hit the demo scene, which gave birth to a new sub-genre of the scene, later termed a "wild demo" - that was also a cool thing to be part of. That video demo (Global Trash 2) was shown on MTV and got us involved with making a music video for a popular Danish dance band. Making music videos was really interesting and we made 6-7 of them for our live performances. We played a few demo scene events (typically there were about 3,000 people at the big events) but making music videos and performing live wasn’t really our thing - we wanted to make games.

Silents DK was known for art, music and production quality and once we met another local Danish demo group called Crionics, which was made up of mostly programmers, this amazing thing happened. Crionics was known as a really hardcore programming group and that is exactly what we had been looking for. So we decided to make a demo together which became Hardwired.

After we released Hardwired we were already working on several Amiga games and that's when we officially joined forces and started a game developer company called Zyrinx. We switched to developing for the Sega Genesis since we knew about the popularity of that machine, especially in the States, and we wanted to enter the game industry with a game that had potential to sell more units than Amiga games.

There was nothing these Crionics guys couldn’t program and they would program everything from scratch in Assembly language. Really hardcore stuff. One of the programmers, Jens Albretsen developed this insane music program for the Amiga 4000 that would connect directly to a Sega Genesis Dev Kit and create 6 channels of pure FM 44hz CD quality music. That allowed me to really get creative with music making on the Sega Genesis. That just goes to show we were not going to use some 3rd party software in our games (even for music and sfx).

The first Genesis game we did was Subterrania and that was sold to Sega, which is when we moved to Boston to continue work on our 2nd game Red Zone (IO Interactive was later founded by the members of Zyrinx).

Most of my teenage years were spent in the demo scene creating music, starting at 13 when I got my first computer, the Commodore 64 and then switching to Amiga and joining Silents DK. I would make a song each day and once I got my music out there I was able to contribute music to many big groups in the scene. It was a great way for me to start out in a creative environment that was completely open-ended at the same time. And working with computers also got us used to technology always changing, and for me that meant constantly figuring out new ways to make music. I think it was a perfect way for me to graduate into the game industry. In a sense my music was born in the demo scene and then it evolved in the game industry.

Question: Which was your first tracker? I remember prior to Protracker there were SoundTracker and NoiseTracker. I presume you used some of these.

That would be the original SoundTracker. I also used Sound Monitor on the C64, not sure if that one is considered a tracker though.

Question: Did you used the legendary ST-01, ST-02, ST-03, etc ... sound tracker sample disks?

Sure, my first 50 or so tracks in SoundTracker were all made with the original ST1 and ST2 disks. Then I started sampling my own sounds. Another cool thing about the trackers is that when you get a song from another composer you get all his instruments too, there were a lot of instruments being reused from composers as well.

Question: I would be interested to hear more about the program you(?) wrote for synthesizing and sequencing the fm chip for this genesis/megadrive. do you still fire it up on an emulator or anything? was it tracker style or?

The Genesis music program was made by Zyrinx programmer Jens Albretsen. It only runs on Amiga 4000 (as far as I know) together with a Megadrive devkit. It's a tracker style program for FM sounds.

Question: Do you ever dig up the old C64 or Amiga to mess around with, or maybe even as a sound source for your productions?

I actually left the C64 and Amiga 500 back in Denmark and I don't have the Amiga 4000 anymore.

Old 1st December 2016
Don Solaris's Avatar
4 Reviews written
🎧 15 years

Question: How did you got into the JD-990 cult? The reason i ask is because i remember the time it came out and most of us thought "ahhh it's just a rack version of JD-800". Little did we know how wrong we were. Then two years later the JV-1080 came out and we were ALL over it. Everyone i knew bought it, including myself. Now looking back one can immediately hear how good JD is in the high registers, the filter high freq response and stereo width. It's just head and shoulders above (though 1080 is a stellar synth as well). So... i wonder how come you decided for 990 and not 1080?

I was living in Copenhagen when I first saw the JD800. A very expensive and totally mind-bogbling synth that I didn’t even dare dream of owning. At the time I was in a synth band with my best friend and we would spend nights and weekends creating tracks with our collection of synths, drum machines, samplers etc all controlled by the amazing Dr. T's KCS Keyboard Controlled Sequencer on the Amiga. I was around 15 at the time. So the Roland JD 800 came out a few years later and really left a mark on me in my teenage years. After starting a game company and moving to the US I was tasked with writing the soundtrakcs for all the Zyrinx, Lemon and most of the Scavenger games. So lots of game soundtracks to be written and kick ass games needed great music and so we needed to get some music equipment. I was working with lots of game teams such as Saxs Persson who later become studio head of Shiny Entertainment. The founders of Starbreeze Studios were also working with Scavenger - Lemon and Zyrinx later mutated into IO Interactive. My first equipment in the US included a JD990 (I finally got one!), Marion's MSR2 (Tom Oberheim's company), Ensoniq TS12 (actually got that in Boston and used it for my Sega Genesis music writing), Akai S2800 Sampler, Emulator 6400 (I was using 3 Emulator 6400s when I retired them), Juno 60 and Oberheim OBXa. In answer to your question, I always wanted a Roland JD synth. I bought the JD990 in 1994 and so the 1080 might not have been out yet. I was using the first PC Cubase program called Cubase Score and there were no audio features, just midi to run your synths (this was before Giga Studio).

Thinking about this really reminds me of how music wasnt made with computers back then. They were only used to sequence midi notes. In some ways that added more variation to the music, what I mean is that these days everyone uses the same orchestral libraries, mastering software and VST synths. I was lucky that I got to release most of the music I have written over the years, starting with my music for the demo scene when I was 13. That music is still out there on YouTube and demo scene web sites etc. So while I have been moving my music forward since the beginning, that also means everything I learned over the years, most of my music experiments, it's all out there, in my music, for people to hear. In a sense, I grew up in the music industry and my music grew up in the public domain.

Question: Although i recognize the JD's Fantasynth waveform in this track, the way this sound is filtered is something really really magical. Did you used a help of some external filter or perhaps Emulator E-4 or was it straight from 990? The whole Hospital theme (Hitman Codename 47 soundtrack) has those eerie filter sweeps all over it. In fact to this day i wonder how did you achieve that. Because it sounds scary. It really does. Amazing sound design skills.

The Hitman Codename 47 soundtrack was made in Microsoft Direct Music (one of the few scores to be done in Direct Music I think). A complete nightmare for me since it is a very non-creative platform. So I decided to write all the music in Cubase instead and sample sequences and assemble everything inside Direct Music. I was using the Akai S2800 sampler, experimenting a lot with re-sampling and downsampling to make all the music fit inside the ram requirements of the game. In Direct Music it was also possible to play back samples in different pitches (without using more ram) and so that made it easier to make the ambient music take up less ram.Working with ram limitations is something I had done many times before. Starting with ram limitations on the C64, the Amiga, Sega Genesis and the Sega Saturn Sound System (which was also tricky to work with but it had some great built-in effects). I must admit when PlayStation 2 came around and CD-based music become the norm I was very happy. I had been practicing my CD-based music for years and was eager to start growing my music in this format.

Question: I've read in one older interview that you used an E-MU Emulator 4. I'm curious do you still have it? Did you used it in the Hitman Codename 47 soundtrack? I can hear what sounds like bit reduction / downsampling of some of the samples, particularly in the Hospital theme. I always imagined you used E4 to do that kind of processing. But i'm probably wrong.

Yeah, I still have a couple of my Emu 6400s left. I can’t get myself to sell them. Such great machines and filters. I also still have my Akai S2800 and often think about how to get back into using the Akai samplers. The music I did with samplers is just so different from working with a perfect sounding computer. These days a S2800 costs the same as S5000, which is insane, so I might have to look into that soon.

Question: Do you have a general rule prior to making a track. For example do you compile your sounds and program them first, then go write a track, or you first start with something like a piano and a note sheet, then start to look for sounds that would match the composition? I assume the answer is somewhere in the middle but i'm curious to learn from your experience and what you found to work best in relation to: note vs sound design.

Sometimes I record my own sounds first, especially if I have an idea for the recording and how it will affect the score. Other times I start with the melody and sit at the piano and scribble ideas down on paper (though the mics are always recording when I am playing the piano - I never know what music comes out when sitting down at a piano).

In general, I find it's much easier to write music if you know what you are aiming for. But with many of my scores the sound is a bit more out there. With scores such as Assassin’s Creed 2 it really took some experimenting before a new sound emerged. I had never written any renaissance music and knew nothing about music for the time period before starting.

Regarding notes vs sound design, my music notes are often a mix of chord progressions, music notes and general notes. I don't care about making proper note sheets etc, I am more intersted in the actual mood and atmosphere. How you play 3 notes is more interesting than what the the actual 3 notes are. You can make the 3 most non-musical notes sound great with the right emotional balance. Pushing things regarding mood and atmosphere is what makes music sound interesting, unique and modern to me.

Question: Which gear you had at the time of writing Codename 47 soundtrack?

Instruments used for the Hitman: Codename 47 score included: Yamaha VL-1, Ensoniq TS-12, Yamaha FS1R, Marion MSR2 (Tom Oberheim), Roland JD990, Akai S2800, Roland JP8080, Roland Juno 60, Roland TB303, Roland 707, Roland 606, Oberheim OBXa and Oberheim Matrix 6.

Not sure if all these synths showed up on the score, but those were the synths I was using at the time.

Question: Funny one. When do you usually get up, when you go to sleep.

Well, when I get up depends on how late I work. It's not unusual for me to work until 04:30 in the morning but I try to stop work around 02:00 am every night. So I start work in the studio around 10:00 am, work until 18:00. Take a break and usually get back to work around 22:00.

Question:In fact i wanted to ask about the lo-fi gritty sounds present on Codename 47 and as far as i can understand that was all downsampled in Akai S2800.

Yeah, downsampled on Akai S2800.

Question: I will also presume those eerie filter sweeps most likely originate from Akai since you mentioned a lot of processing and resampling?

Yes and they were also played in different octaves which gave the music an eerie quality when played back in Direct Music.

Old 1st December 2016
Don Solaris's Avatar
4 Reviews written
🎧 15 years

Question: Mixing in the box or outside? Even with hardware synths.

Well, I like mixing with both. Certain things are way easier to do with plugins and there is a total control aspect that can be applied inside the box which is cool. It's also important to be able to recall everything easily, which is very easy to do with software. I love hardware though and I feel hardware sounds better for many things. Especially reverb. I have a big spring reverb tower called BX20, which is all over my Assassin's Creed scores. I have a lot of different reverbs. I also really like using the Lexicon 224 as well the Roland Space Echos. String machines is another area where nothing beats the real thing and I love using those as well. Vocoders I also use, especially when jamming a performance into a track. My Darksiders 2 score has some vocoder parts which were all jammed live into the score.

Darksiders 2 - Crystal Spire:

Question: Favourite sound design tool which affects your imagination best? It might be hardware synth, vst.

Well, that would be my grand piano, the CS80 and the Eurorack Modular. Omnisphere can also be a nice tool to get ideas going quickly.

Question: Do you have drum/guitar/keys playing skills?

I did take about 5 years of classical guitar lessons as a kid. I didn’t really enjoy it, not sure why I kept going. After that I basically forced myself to forget everything about guitar playing. I wasn’t going to let that experience ruin music for me

I don't play a drum set but whenever I record live percussion or percussive instruments I like to join in on the action. I prefer to play the synths or piano when writing music.

Question: Do you master your own music? By yourself or using online mastering studios?

I don't use online mastering studios. Sometimes we master the music at the final mix, other times I have different mastering engineers I like to use.

Question: Can you please talk a bit about how you approached producing the drums and percussive elements in the first Hitman game (Codename 47)? The drum selection and programming is really phenomenal and I'd love to hear more about the types of drums you used and how you used reverb and delay on them. Also, did you use a sampler/workstation to program drums or was it with a DAW?

The drums were created from samples I recorded and then filtered and edited on the Akai S2800 where they were time-stretched and played back at extreme pitches. Back then I used the Akai 2800 for most of my drums. Programmed on S2800 and played back in Cubase.

Question: Love Kyd's choral work, especially on Freedom Fighters, would love to know more about the process on how he does them... i.e. Written on a computer first with samples? And if he prefers a certain mic technique to capture the recording.

Sometimes I write with piano for all parts and other times use Kontakt Instruments that emulate certain moods and feels of the instrument I am looking to record. Sometimes I let the performance of an instrument dictate if it fits in the arrangement, which can lead to some unusual arrangements compared to a more traditional Hollywood approach.

Question: Want to know if he has a go to reverb for his more ambient work?

I love reverb so I use a lot of hardware reverbs such as the Lexicon 224X, Lexicon model 200, AKG BX20 spring reverb tower, Eventide etc.

Question: The photo on his website shows an Elektron A4 and Octatrack in his studio ("About" page). Would like to know how he uses the Octatrack in his work?

The A4 and Analog Keys were uzed on the Claptastic Voyage score. I use the Octatrack more as effects by sampling sounds and running them through the unit.

Question: Percussion — so much of your work is so heavy on ethnic drumming (particularly Borderlands and Assassin’s Creed, but throughout your catalogue). I would love to know what you’re using, how you’re recording, and how you’re processing to make the drums so immense. Of course, it’s song specific, but I’d just like to know a bit about how you approach your percussion. Do you have a room stacked with drums or are you heading to another studio? Also, are you pre-programming patterns for percussionists to work with? How are you coaching such incredible performances? Are you performing some of this yourself?

Most of the drums and percussion I perform myself on a midi keyboard. I have a huge collection of drum libraries and also many of my own sounds. Drums have always been a big part of my sound as I grew up in the dance music scene, and I loved going to underground raves and have a huge dance music collection. I went through many different dance genres when starting out with music. I wrote a lot in different genres such as trance music, techno, breakbeat, 2-step etc. and this does reflect in my early scores for projects such as Scorcher and Batman and Robin. So for me, percussion and drums are something that I bring with me and I need to decide on each project how much I want to bring that out. Even if it's a more acoustic or ambient score I always pay a lot of attention to my rhythms. These days, that can be a challenge since I mostly prefer to work inodd meters such as 7/8, 11/4 etc. That makes the percussion a challenge, which in turn makes it more fun to work on.

Question: Drum machines — I know you’ve mentioned that you use Machinedrum a lot, but what else are you using and can you point to specific examples where you’ve used Machinedrum or other drum machines? Do you mess about in piano rolls or are you mainly programming machines and/or using live drummers?

It's a bit of everything. I like using live percussion ensembles which is pretty evident on scores such as Assassin's Creed, Assassin's Creed 2 and Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood. Drums on scores such as Robotech Invasion were written with Machine Drum where I made a lot of my own drum sounds. On the SyFy channel show Metal Hurlant Chronicles I used the Oberheim DX which I really love. It's got such a great feel and swing to it. The 808 is probably one of my favorite drum machines. I also used to use the TB-303 which can clearly be heard on the MDK2 soundtrack.

Trivia time: the official photo on the Sequential Circuits Prophet 10 page is actually Jesper Kyd's Prophet 10.
Old 1st December 2016
Don Solaris's Avatar
4 Reviews written
🎧 15 years

Question: Clearly, reverb is a critical element of your mixes. Can you talk a bit about what sort of thought goes into selecting reverbs for the games you are working on? Is that typically your choice, or the choice of those working on the game’s sound design? What are some of your favorite reverbs (hardware or software)? And do you stack reverbs (i.e. individual instruments or buses w/ reverb feeding into reverb sends or 2bus reverb)?

Yeah, I LOVE reverb. But it's a very tricky thing since I don't like music that sounds too reverb-y...there's a very fine line to walk when using a lot of reverb (I try to use reverb a bit more selectively these days whereas on some earlier scores I used more than I would do today). A lot of engineers really don't like a lot of reverb and prefer me to bring the reverb in a separate stem for the mix, which I never do Why, so they can put plugin reverb on my music? I mostly use high-end reverbs such as the Lexicons 224X, Model 200, AKG BX20 Spring Tower, Eventide etc. I choose the reverb and base that choice on what type of track I am writing. For example, the State of Decay HD Survival Edition soundtrack is probably my biggest experiment with reverb to date. I had to tone it back a bit since I was going way out there with some of those tracks. In State of Decay you are literally playing in a decaying, rural environment. So I worked on bringing rustic elements to the sound and also something that sounds a bit like time has stood still since the 1950s and ‘60s. It's a town that the world forgot with references to a happier time. A track such as Trumbull Valley is a good example of the older hi-fi sound coming through like a controlled wall of reverb, mostly created with equipment from the 1970s.

State of Decay 2 trailer:

Question: In the past, you’ve acknowledged love for 70s and 80s analog synthesizers — specifically the CS80 and OBXA. We’re in the midst of what could be called a renaissance in hardware synthesizers — have you made use of many new synths? If so, care to name any that have stood out for you and where you’ve used them?

Well, I'm lucky that I have many analog synths such as the CS80, Prophet 10, VP330, Roland SH5 etc. and nothing really beats those as far as what they do. I do use the Elektron synths such as Analog Keys and Analog 4. Most of my new synths are in EuroRack format so if you’re looking at it from that perspective I use a lot of new synths too. My favorite Euro modules emulate analog sound such as the Livewire AFG.

Question: I’m a huge fan of the Hitman: Blood Money OST, so I have a few questions about that. What were some of the most important pieces of gear in use for that score?

Not a whole lot actually. It was a lot of live music so the non-live instruments often sounded like they were live in order to fit into the choir and orchestra direction. It was a really spontaneous score that was created from playing the game over and over. That's how I created the 4 Hitman scores and Freedom Fighters. Some of the analog synths I used for those scores were Oberheim OBXa and Roland Juno 60.

Question: You make some really awesome use of distortion, particularly on the percussion in “Day Light In New Orleans” and “Night Time in New Orleans.” What were you using to provide that distortion? Sherman Filterbank perhaps?

Wow, I can't even remember when I last heard that music - let me take a listen...Yeah back then I used the Sherman Filterbank a lot, so yeah that's the Sherman.

Question: Excellent sound design on “Hunter.” The pad sound that plays throughout that song (beginning at about 20 seconds) sounds so interesting to me. What are you using there? A new sound is introduced at about 3:55 (a droning, sort of Arctic wind type of sound) — how did you go about creating that sound?

I can't actually remember, sounds like it started out as a pad from a soft synth with some filtering and tweaking.

Question: How did you create the rhythmic scratching sound that begins at around 2:35 of “Action in Paris”? It sounds so exquisite through headphones and I’ve always wondered how you did that.

Wow, I am listening to Hitman music today Been a looooong time. So that scratchy stuff was done with lots of VST fx and some careful eq'ing to bring out interesting frequencies in the drums.

Question: Borderlands — When it comes to distorted guitars, such as those found on the Borderlands OSTs, what sort of processing are you using? Are you recording direct for more flexibility in mixing, or using amps and mics?

Most of the guitar performances are recorded with amps and mics. I then bring them into Cubase and start processing everything with analog hardware and VST fx. Each track uses a different setup of pedals. I like to record the live performance during the writing process. I find that it creates more variation in the performance and choice of pedals. If you record guitars for, say, 10 tracks at the same time, it often ends up sounding a bit similar, which is not a good thing for game scores, where small details make a big difference as gamers will sometimes hear that music 50 or 100 times. I always work on adding little details so there is new stuff to discover when hearing a track for the 10th time. That's the gamer in me that talks to me

Question: There is an instrument that appears throughout the Borderlands OST that sounds like it may be a heavily processed violin (or maybe I’m totally wrong). It appears at the beginning of the theme, for example. What is it and how are you treating it to make it sound so unusual and moving? Obviously the performance is huge part of it, but what else are you doing there?

Yeah the performance is a big part of it. It's actually a broken violin and we play drony chords on it. After that it's processed. I am not a purist in any way - I love processed sound. BUT I do everything I can to have the best source material before I start processing. When you play an old analog synth and start to process you can keep going and going. Do the same to a VST synth and it runs out of steam once a certain amount of processing occurs.

Question: The Assassin’s Creed 2 OST is so vast that it’s difficult to be specific in my questions. There is such a variety of sound — guitars, percussion, brass, strings, piano, vocals, synths/sound design, etc. I’ve often wondered while listening how you were able to guide so many different musicians toward your overall vision? Or did they perhaps guide you a bit? It’s hard to imagine, for example, what you came to the percussion ensemble with on songs like “Chariot Chase” and “Wetlands Combat”. Were there mockups in those cases? Whatever you had, they really ran with it and totally nailed incredible performances.

Thanks! Yes, I think that score is a good showcase of several of the different styles I write. Before Assassin’s Creed 2 I had never written anything even remotely close to Renaissance music so it was a great opportunity. The developers did not want an authentic period-sounding score, partly because they were concerned that it would be dull for a modern audience and that most gamers didn’t care about that kind of music style, which I agree with. We really wanted the sci-fi element of the Animus in there as well and I decided to try and incorporate the Animus feel into all of the music, a kind of electronic music mixed with historical music. I think it turned out to be an interesting style I created all of the electronic instruments and sounds and on tracks such as Chariot Chase we mixed live drums on top of the drums I played. That's how I like to do percussion and I often join in playing percussion with the live percussion performers. We recorded some percussion performances on Wetlands Combat and that’s where the track started. So it started with the live percussion and then I took those back to the studio and created a full track. The last element we recorded were the guitars.
Old 1st December 2016
Don Solaris's Avatar
4 Reviews written
🎧 15 years

Question: When approaching a new project, how do you begin selecting sounds, themes, particular tools to see the project through? What, if any, limits do you place on yourself?

That's a great question...well it really depends on what the approach should be. If coming up with a new sound is the priority then that will be the force that drives the score. I usually try to experiment and find new ideas that feel like they deepen the world which you are scoring or fits the character if it’s a character-driven score. Once you start to find something that really enhances the experience, it becomes easier and then I really get going

Question: Did you ever had a data loss tragedy in the studio. i.e. failed HD drive or some file mistakenly overwritten by another? Is fo, how did you deal with it?

No, I am very careful to back up my music.

Question: Going back to Codename 47 soundtrack, Harbor Theme. In the first 20 seconds of the track I can hear a lot of industrial types of sounds. Were these all sampled by yourself or you used some specific sample CDs?

Those are my own sounds, created by sampling my own performances and then filtering and meddling with the sounds.

Question: Then there is this beautiful arpeggio-like arrangement in the 4th minute and i will be honest i've never heard anything like that before. Do you remember how you constructed it? Was FM synthesis involved? Is is just phenomenal, because one can not point exactly what kind of instrument it is.

I think I programmed that on the Roland JD990 and then sequenced it in Cubase.

Question: How big was your sample CD collection back then? In the Codename 47 Main Title I can hear a breakbeat from the cult Masterbits sample CD ROM which was titled "House, Hip-Hop, Electro". Did you had some other CD titles during that time if so, which was your favorite?

It was very small. I used a variety of source material when sampling. Then I tweak, program and filter until the sound is completely changed.

Question: Do you get a chance to get a taste of the game before composing? Do you relate the artwork/style/theme of the game to your music as a source of inspiration? The Borderlands OST is my personal favorite and I'm thinking of Borderlands for this question.

Yes, I often get a chance to see or play the game. It's a big help and it does influence the music. However it's not unusual for a game to really come together towards the end of a development cycle, meaning the games are often too early in their development to really get a sense of the mood and atmosphere in the game. Borderlands is an action game but that's not how I would define the score - it's a lot of location-based music. I would be shown these locations and based on how complete the levels were, I would let that influence the music.

Question: Has it ever worked the other way around, i.e., has your music influenced the game artwork or inspired the design of the atmosphere of the game?

Sure, I am often told that developers enjoy listening to the soundtrack being written while working on the game. I don't think that's something happening that is unique to me and my music.

There are also moments where the game has been adjusted to better fit with the timing of the music.

Question: Are your synths tuned to 440 or some other freq?


Question: Do you work with Solfeggio frequencies or other precise frequencies?

No, I am more interested in experimenting with mood than really precise ways of getting there.

Question: What would be your Ambient 101 lesson on chord progressions (popular keys, phrasing, voicing, frequency of changes, etc.)?

I don't think of myself as writing ambient music and I don't think much about chord progressions either. I step further back and work towards what enhances the game. It's more of an instinct and I often find the less I think about the music, the more the composition flows naturally. Of course, if writing a theme, you do have to look at the notes and be aware of what's there.

Some composers like to study scores that they feel fit what's required for a certain theme and that's certainly a fine way to go about writing themes. I just like to do things my way, originality to me is very important. So many themes and music styles are being recycled over and over and that's not the kind of music I like to listen to or create.

Question: What would be your advanced lesson on chord progressions and what are your favorite chord extension techniques (pedal tones, modal mixtures, key modulation, suspensions, deceptive cadences, root moves, etc).

I actually try to move away from all that and let the music come out through my fingers. I often find that when closing my eyes and playing the piano completely different music comes out than if I watch my hands. When watching my hands I think about what I'm playing and try to go on that journey. It's two different approaches and for me the first method usually creates something more interesting melodically.

Question: Since Ambient productions tend to be very long how do you structure the form of the composition? How do you go about arranging such long compositions?

Again, I don't think of my music as ambient. If I was to write ambient music it would sound very different. I think the only score I have written that I consider ambient is "Soldier" which is a game from 2000 based on the Kurt Russell movie that was never released. Anyway, I have always been writing long form music. Look at my early work for Sega Genesis, some of those tracks are 10+ minutes long, playing away at Main Title screens to give the audience a chance to rock out to the mood of the game. That is something that C64 composers did. I always loved playing games on the C64 and then taking a break and listening to the main title music before diving back in to play the game again. And the best of those soundtrack moments were the ones that just kept on going - and after 15 minutes or so you’d wonder "wow, how long can this go on for?" Love that, it's a clear sign of a composer loving his craft, caring about the audience and going that extra mile.

So long form has always been my style. The challenge for me has been to enjoy writing in short form. You can tell a lot in 30 seconds with a film style music cue (you can go from a love scene to the end of the world in 10 seconds!) I've been more interested in really digging deep in long form writing, not telling people how to feel but giving a mood and saying, here, take this mood and see where it takes you. My score for Darksiders 2 especially, makes this very clear, with songs for the afterlife inspired by ideas such as Death, Heaven, Hell etc. This music doesn’t sound the way it's supposed to and on some days you might feel a certain way when hearing it and on other days this music will make you feel something completely different. That is something classical music, songs and albums do so well and I believe long form music really helps with this. For example, a 30 second film cue for an action scene or a product jingle for a commercial are usually designed to work only on one level of reality. It's meant to make you feel the same way, regardless of the mood you are in. However, when a film scores go beyond this concept, the film can be enhanced in really interesting ways and there are examples of film scores breaking this tradition and making more long form sounding music.

Question: Favorite all time gear - HW & SW (including FX)?

Hardware: Yamaha CS80, all Eventide gear, Prophet 10, Roland SH5, TC2290 Delay, Lexicon 224x, AKG BX20 Spring Reverb Tower.

Software: Too many to mention, some of my favs are Omnisphere, SynthMaster2, Zebra, Cytomic Glue…

Question: How do you provoke your musical inspiration - other artists, nature, meditation???

Love reading, playing games, watching movies, listening to music, spending time with family.

Question: What synthesizers did you use for the Freedom Fighters soundtrack (if any?) Also what was your inspiration for the overall vibe of that soundtrack? It remains one of my favorites to this day. Brilliant work.

Thanks! Yamaha CS80, Alesis Andromeda, Oberheim OBXa, Oberheim Matrix 6, Roland Juno 60.

Question: Which music artists were the inspiration for composing the music of Hitman 2: Silent Assassin and Hitman: Contracts, both the classical and electronic elements of those soundtracks? I would love ideas of similar music to listen to, that you have done very well.

I try not to listen to a lot of music when coming up with the sound of a score since I don't want anything to creep in there. I do remember really enjoying Star Wars The Phantom Menace by John Williams at the time. That was about the only influence.

Many fans (probably most) of the Hitman games state that these two are the best in the series, and the music is a large part of what gives them the atmosphere they needed to have. I listen to the Hitman soundtracks even while not playing the games. Some of the music is mellow ambient or classical, and it could go into something gritty and sinister later, and I thought the music transitions were great, based around what you do while playing the games. I believe the music you've done for the Hitman games is wonderful, as well as the Assassin's Creed series!

Thanks! Great to hear you like it

- end of the interview -

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