Red Orchestra 2 - Heroes of Stalingrad (Video Game)

 

 

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September 2011

 

Interview with Sam Hulick
From Amiga to Orchestra

 

Sam Hulick Biography

Sam Hulick is a multi-award winning and BAFTA award-nominated composer who began his voyage into the world of video games at the tender age of six, with his Bally Arcade console, later graduating to a ColecoVision. He turned to computer games during middle school and by high school he had progressed to his earliest compositions with a keyboard he had been gifted.

After attending Indiana University, he entered the work force as a computer programmer and administrator, which he enjoyed initially, though in time he felt the pangs of a different calling: to combine his passions for video games and writing music, and pursue a career as a video game composer.

Official Site

Composition Credits (Video Games)

Red Orchestra 2: Heroes of Stalingrad
Mass Effect 2
Mass Effect Downloadable Content: Bring Down the Sky
Mass Effect
Rise & Ruin
Maximo vs. Army of Zin

 


 
 

 

 

 

Composer Sam Hulick

"Everyone knows it's extremely difficult to make a living with an artistic trade, and working as a composer in the game industry wasn't something I could just jump into."

Sam Hulick


Composer Sam Hulick shares about his technological path to the world of video game music composition - from MASS EFFECT to RED ORCHESTRA 2 - HEROES OF STALINGRAD.

Interview conducted by Marius Masalar

MM - You grew up in something of an interesting environment. A custom-designed geodesic dome? Tell us a bit about how your younger years prepared you for your current path.

SAM HULICK - Yeah, my dad played in a lot of bands throughout his life and even produced an album, but he earned his living as a contractor doing construction. He designed and built the house where I spent about twelve years of my life. For a while, we had a normal living room, but eventually it was converted into a music studio complete with a mixing board, microphones, keyboards, guitars, the works (much to the disappointment of my mother who didn't get much peace and quiet). Definitely a music-centric household to say the least.

I started off in my early teens with a strong interest in computers, in a broad sense. I was really into video games, of course, on both console systems and computers, but I was interested in programming and learning how software works. I have fond memories from college of spending a lot of time in the computer labs, one of which was full of NeXT computers which ran an operating system that was essentially a very early version of Mac OS X. I guess it's kind of funny how things have come full circle and now I work pretty much exclusively on Mac OS X. I'm also a pretty big Linux geek, but that's another story.

Anyway, I digress. On a totally separate path, I developed an interest in writing music. I had an Amiga computer at the time, and started writing on that when I was about sixteen or so. I used a tracker called MED (and later OctaMED), which was pretty simple and allowed someone like me who could not read music to easily create my own pieces using samples. Around the same time, my dad was adding keyboards to the studio and I moved over to the Ensoniq VFX-SD workstation. That's where things really started to take off and I began my journey into composition on a more serious level.

MM - You started in the workforce as a programmer and computer administrator...that seems to be a common thread for composers: arriving at the job in a sideways manner. How did those skills translate to the world of media scoring?

SAM HULICK - I did spend several years working in programming and web development to pay the bills. Everyone knows it's extremely difficult to make a living with an artistic trade, and working as a composer in the game industry wasn't something I could just jump into. I had a passion for programming and so I pursued that as a stable career path. For me, programming was more about the creative aspect of building something from scratch, rather than any mathematical or logical aspects to it. And so there was a parallel between programming and music that I found, though they are definitely different types of creativity. Programming feels more like I'm using the left side of my brain to create building blocks and build a complex program that does something interesting, whereas composing engages the right side of my brain to translate emotions into something audible that others can hear and feel deeply. So I consider myself a very "center-brained" individual. But yes, there are a decent amount of composers who are pretty heavy computer geeks, some of whom have also at least dabbled in programming. There are certainly some paralles there for some people.

MM - What was it like to work with such a prominent figure in the game audio world as Tommy Tallarico on your very first project? Did that connection end up bringing you more work later on? Have you two stayed in touch and considered collaborating since then?

SAM HULICK - We do keep in touch now and then, and I see him every year at the Game Developerís Conference. Heís a really great guy and working with him was a positive experience. We havenít worked together since then, but Iím sure working on Maximo vs. Army of Zin contributed in some way to other connections and opportunities after that.

MM - You've described MASS EFFECT as your breakthrough scoring assignment. How did you end up getting that call? Was it something you pursued or did the project come to you?

SAM HULICK - It came quite unexpectedly, actually. BioWare got in touch with me and invited me to demo for a new sci-fi game they were working on, and of course I was ecstatic. As it turns out, Jack Wall had recommended me to BioWare since he was unavailable at the time. Funnily enough, though, just a couple days later he wrote me to tell me he was free after all, so we wound up being in competition for the project. Following the demo process, Jack was chosen to score MASS EFFECT. Fast forward a bit, in January 2007, I got a surprise call from Jack, inviting me to join him in co-writing the score. Both he and BioWare really liked my demo submissions and felt I had something valuable to contribute to the soundtrack, and so I was brought on as co-composer.

 

MASS EFFECT: Music by Jack Wall and Sam Hulick

 

MM - Once again, you found yourself working alongside an influential figure in the game audio community. What was it like working with Jack Wall? How collaborative was the scoring process for MASS EFFECT?

SAM HULICK - Jack and I worked independently on our own cues for the most part, and collaborated on a few pieces here and there. There was a lot of communication between us during the process. We had spreadsheets we shared to keep track of what was getting done and by whom, sometimes we'd email patch presets back and forth to get a more cohesive sound. For the most part though, it was a team effort to pitch in our talents and our time to take on this massive score, and we definitely needed all hands on deck, especially toward the end of the project when Richard Jacques and David Kates were brought on to help wrap things up. I think in total, all four of us wrote over two hours of music. Jack acted as not only lead composer, but also manager, and would assign each of us different cues to work on, provide feedback, and handle most of the interaction with BioWare. It was a pretty smooth process and it worked out well.

MM - The score is often lauded for its beautiful blending of synthetic and organic instrumentation; how did you go about crafting that balanced sound and what kind of inspiration and creative direction from the producers did you draw from?

SAM HULICK - Casey Hudson, the producer of the MASS EFFECT franchise, had a very clear vision from the start as far as what he was looking for. Vangelis and Tangerine Dream were strong references in developing the strong vintage synth influence that MASS EFFECTís musical signature is based on. There were other stylistic ideas that Casey had, such as placing the analog synths in the same orchestral hall ambience as the acoustic instruments, and thatís one of the defining qualities of the MASS EFFECT sound. So we took those elements and ran with them, adding a bit of our own style to the score to make it something very memorable and unique.

MM - What are some of the tools and techniques that you employed to realize the final product? Are you more of a software or hardware kind of guy when it comes to music production?

SAM HULICK - I'm definitely more of a software kind of guy. I keep my studio setup pretty minimal, basically my Mac Pro, a pair of Dynaudio studio monitors, an audio interface, and a MIDI keyboard. Iíve got a couple other minor pieces of gear for routing audio from different sources but thatís really about it.

MM - How much access did you have to the game itself while you were working? Is it important for you to be able to see your music in context as you work on it?

SAM HULICK - BioWare loaned me an Xbox 360 dev kit with a beta copy of MASS EFFECT pre-installed, so what Iíd do is hook up the Xbox 360 to an alternate input on my monitor and switch between that and my sequencer so I could work on an idea, and then switch back to the game and play while I played my music. This is really the best way to write for games, I think. Itís an instantaneous feedback system that gives you a good sense of how the final product will look and sound.

 

MASS EFFECT 2: Music by Jack Wall and Sam Hulick

 

MM - When the sequel rolled around, did the trust you established with the developers from working on the first title afford you more creative freedom? Would you say that the creative direction of the MASS EFFECT 2 score was significantly different from the first?

SAM HULICK - We were given about as much creative freedom as we were given on the first game Iíd say. I donít think the direction was significantly different but it was a gradual shift towards a more cinematic and darker tone.

MM - What lessons did you learn from the first and apply to working on the second score?

SAM HULICK - Well, the first game was a whole new learning experience for me since it was my first large scale scoring gig. So by the time I worked on the sequel, I knew a lot more about how the game production process worked and what to expect as far as workload and how much time it would take to write the music. And I think MASS EFFECT 2 was more streamlined and structured, just from an organizational perspective. We used an online database to keep track of our progress and pass notes to Jackís assistant Brian DiDomenico for implementation; we used Dropbox to sync and share our cues with Jackís studio so everything was always up-to-date in one place.

MM - Has DLC changed the way you approach a project? Knowing, for instance, that the world of music you're creating will one day need to be expanded. Do you plan for that or do you treat the DLC situation as entirely independent?

SAM HULICK - I think itís a case-by-case basis, but usually itís a pretty straightforward matter to carry themes that have already been established into DLCs. With the DLC I worked on for MASS EFFECT, a new theme was developed for the Batarians, so it didnít borrow anything thematically from MASS EFFECT but the style of the original score was still there.
 

MM - Your work on MASS EFFECT has obviously started catching the attention of more and more people. Did that have anything to do with you being brought on as the sole composer for Red Orchestra 2: HEROES OF STALINGRAD, or was that unrelated?

SAM HULICK - Definitely, it had everything to do with me working on HEROES OF STALINGRAD. I was at the Valve party at the 2010 Game Developerís Conference and I kind of randomly met these guys that a colleague of mine introduced me to. I had no idea who they were, and Iíd never heard of their company before then. We chatted a bit, they told me about themselves and their work, and they told me they were big fans of the MASS EFFECT soundtrack. Incidentally, all of their favorite parts were pieces that I wrote. We exchanged cards, and they said they had an opportunity for me. Right after GDC they invited me to demo for Red Orchestra 2: HEROES OF STALINGRAD; about a month later I was chosen to score the game, and so began one of my biggest undertakings to date.

MM - How did HEROES OF STALINGRAD differ from your previous major projects, besides the fact of being on your own for it? For example, did the interactive music system force you to reconsider your workflow at all?

SAM HULICK - Actually the interactive music system was not the most challenging part of the project. We decided against looping and using stems for layers of intensity because it wouldnít have worked for this particular game. For MASS EFFECT 2, it worked perfectly but for HEROES OF STALINGRAD, a different approach was needed. We needed something that wouldnít tire the listener as they would likely be playing for potentially long stretches of time on different maps. We opted for a ďplaylistĒ type format where the music doesnít loop, but rather it plays all the way through and then skips randomly to another cue. And then the cue thatís playing will transition into a low morale cue if your team starts doing poorly or transition into a high morale cue if things start going well. Lastly, of course, different music will play whether youíre playing on the Russian side or the German side. So on my end, I was fortunate enough to just focus entirely on the emotional and creative aspects of writing. It might have been possible to write in a way so that thereís one central neutral morale cue, and then separate stems that could be layered in to give it either a negative or positive feeling, but I donít feel it would have allowed for enough flexibility to produce a really interesting and powerful score in this particular case.

 

Red Orchestra 2: HEROES OF STALINGRAD - Music by Sam Hulick


MM - Did you get the opportunity to work with some live musicians to help cement the realism of the score? What was it like integrating their work into a sample-based score?

SAM HULICK - I had the pleasure of working with a good friend of mine, Jeff Ball, who replaced the sampled violin I had on a handful of cues. Naturally, the difference was astounding! Having someone as skilled as Jeff in the mix adds such a breath of life and emotion into the score. When I started writing the initial cues, I added solo violin to add an element of loneliness and sadness to the music, and I knew from the start that I had to work with Jeff on this. He's based out of Seattle and I live in Chicago, so all work was done remotely. I'd send him a MIDI file and a full stereo mix with sampled violin so he could hear what I was going for, and a full mix without the violin so he could drop his performance in. No printed score, no click, and I'd have my cue back within a day or two. It really helps to have professionals you can rely on when you're in crunch mode and you need it done right in one shot.

The choir I worked with was the men's chorale from the Philadelphia Boys Choir & Chorale, except I used only the men's section as I needed a heftier sound from the choir. There was no doubt I had to have a live choir for this project; I knew that from day one. Having a sampled choir attempt to convincingly sing lyrics in Russian is asking for trouble. I flew out and spent two days in Philly to oversee the choir recording session. It was a group of about 30 vocalists, tenors and basses, and it took about one evening to get all the material recorded. I really love all the work they did, but in particular their haunting performance on "The Bitter End" is my favorite. It still gives me chills when I listen to it!

MM - Do you find yourself doing a lot of research when attempting a score based on actual history versus something like MASS EFFECT where the world is fictional, or do you approach every project intuitively and take it from there?

SAM HULICK - Itís interesting because MASS EFFECT had this 50-page style guide, basically a mini encyclopedia on the MASS EFFECT universe, covering every race, galactic history, currency, ships, everything. So in a way, I spent time researching a ďhistoryĒ that never really existed in order to get a grasp of the world Iíd be writing music for. With any project, thereís research involved in getting acquainted with the context in which youíre writing; itís just that one is from someoneís imagination while the other is based in reality.

HEROES OF STALINGRAD had an added component of research though, from a musical perspective. To add hints of classical music, I referenced German and Russian composers: Beethoven, Wagner, Bruckner, Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky, and Rachmaninov. Between going over the history of the Battle of Stalingrad, and logging many hours listening to material by the aforementioned classical composers as well as Soviet marches, I spent a substantial amount of prep time before really diving into the score with both feet.

MM - You've said that a priority of yours is making sure that the music you write for a project works well not only in context but also outside of it, on album. With the release of a HEROES OF STALINGRAD CD expected along with the game, what can you tell us about preparing the album? Do you get to arrange the cues yourself into an optimal listening experience or is that out of your hands?

SAM HULICK - Itís been tough! Iíve got a spreadsheet that I was using to keep track of which cues Iíd completed, which ones needed live violin, and which had gone through prep for mixing/mastering. I also checked off which of the cues I considered my favorites, potentially for inclusion on the soundtrack, and there were just too many. I took a second pass and narrowed it down to maybe twenty, a bit more workable. It is a collaborative process with the developers to select the cues weíre going to put on the soundtrack album, and in what order and how to name them.

MM - What are you most proud of in terms of this score?

SAM HULICK - Well, certainly having taken on the task of writing ninety minutes of music was a major undertaking as my first solo project, so Iím really proud of that. And I feel we achieved the goal of adding enough classical influence into the music while maintaining a core video game experience. Iím proud of the whole project, honestly, and I think the music is some of the best Iíve written to date. I canít wait to share the music with everyone when the soundtrack is released!

MM - If you had the opportunity to work on any project or franchise, which one would it be (or list several that you're inspired by if there isn't one in particular)?

SAM HULICK - The Elder Scrolls comes to mind right away. The Lord of the Rings, Dragon Age, Neverwinter Nights...is it obvious Iím a big fantasy fan? Iíve always been into fantasy RPGs and would really love the opportunity to score music in this genre.

MM - As a parting thought, are there any other interesting projects (personal or professional) on the horizon for you that you can talk about?

There is some new material that will be surfacing in the fall, but thatís all I can say for now. Thanks very much for having me!

 

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