TOMMY TALLARICO, Video Game Composer

June 1, 2006 — 4 Comments

David Perry’s Comments: Tommy Tallarico was first introduced to me when I moved to America (from the United Kingdom) in 1991. He was working with me on the game, “The Terminator” back then. Once I started on a new game called “Global Gladiators” for McDonalds, Tommy came into my office and asked if there was any way to get live instruments into the game? I said “sure”, but it’s a TON of work for you! Needless to say, Tommy rushed off and started work. The game won him yet another music award, as did each game we did together. (Earthworm Jim, 7-UP’s Cool Spot, Disney’s Aladdin etc.)

Since the “old days”, he’s now produced audio for over 250 video game soundtracks, he’s on the Board of the Game Developers Conference running the Audio Track, he’s the head of an organization called GANG which stands for “Game Audio Network Guild“, he hosts a TV show called “Electric Playground“, he hosts another TV show called “Judgement Day” and in his spare time he’s co-hosting the largest live video game concerts in the world, “Video Games Live“.

How he gets time to do ANY interviews is a mystery to me, but here he is, my friend, Tommy Tallarico.

Let’s start with a nice and easy question, How does someone become a computer games composer?

The best way to become a video game composer or sound designer is to make a great demo of your very best stuff and send it to every video game publisher and developer in the world! It’s also a great idea to go to all of the trade shows to meet people in the industry. The Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) and the Game Developers Conference are the best. To learn all about the industry you should go to http://www.gamasutra.com There’s a whole section on audio and always lots of job postings.

Do I need to learn any instruments, if so what?

The best instrument to learn would be the piano/synthesizer/keyboard. With the knowledge of that instrument you can pretty much recreate any instrument in the world (through devices known as samplers). It also allows you to record your compositions into midi files which can be edited and recorded easily on a computer.

Do I have to know how to read sheet music?

HELL NO!!! I’ve been doing this for over 10 years and I can’t read crap! I’ve been playing piano since I was three. I’ve never had a lesson, I just play by ear. When it comes time to arrange live orchestral scores I just hire an orchestrator & a copyist.

When applying for jobs, what should I send to demonstrate my abilities?

A CD with about 5 or 6 of your best songs or sound effect demos. It’s always best to put the stuff you love writing the best. Don’t send out a demo that has lots of different varieties of music. Just send the style you love to write. It’s always the best sounding stuff because it comes from you heart.

What equipment and hardware do you use?

We use both Mac’s & PC’s to create our stuff. Lots of Roland keyboards and samplers with lots of sample libraries. We use Digital Performer with a super fast Mac to do cinematics. We don’t use Pro Tools. Digital Performer does everything we need. We use Cakewalk on the PC to sequence our midi. I use 24 tracks of ADAT’s to record my music and I have a 32X8 Mackie console to mix. It’s not a huge massive setup. Everyone seems to think you need to spend millions of dollars to do this, but it’s just not true. Lately home recording gear and computers have made it real easy for the musician just starting out to get his stuff to sound really great for less money.

What is an ideal setup for someone wanting to start writing music for games?

They need a sequencer they are familiar with and a really fast computer so they can record digitally, a couple of powerful samplers and synthesizers, a nice little 16-channel mixing board (the Mackie 1604’s are great). A couple of good monitor speakers and lastly a genuine love for video games! You can have a pretty good digital multi-track setup for under $10,000.

What software do you use, and can you recommend any software that’s relatively cheap to start with?

Like I mentioned earlier we use Cakewalk on the PC and Digital Performer on the Mac. Another great tool for manipulating sound (especially for sound designers) is Sound Forge on the PC. The PC stuff both cost under $200 and I think Digital Performer is around $600??

What do clients typically ask for when using your services, do you have complete artistic license or do they have strict ideas?

For the most part they let me do what I want, but we definitely talk about it in the beginning. Mostly I just sit down and play the game with no sound and start coming up with stuff in my head. Usually most games are pretty obvious what the style of music should be… It’s just a matter of accomplishing it well. The only recent exception has been Spider-Man… I wasn’t sure what the hell to do for Spidey. I’m one of the biggest Spidey fans on the planet (I actually have every single Amazing Spider-Man comic!!) It could have been modern orchestral, rock, techno, cheesy Saturday morning cartoon… anything. I had done a couple of different demo initially, but the guys over at Neversoft wanted more of an interactive Propellerheads type of feel mixed with heavy guitars when Spidey starts to do battle. I think it worked out great! I’m really excited about it!

How long does it take to make a single piece of music for a game?

Anywhere from one day to two weeks!! It depends on how much the creative juices are flowing. I would say on the average about 3 days. It seems that all of my favorite songs have come entirely in one day. Even though you may write a song in a day it might take 2 weeks to record it the way you want. I wrote a tune last year for Tomorrow Never Dies which had vocals in it, live guitars, bass, drums & orchestra. It took me about an hour to write the whole song but about 2 1/2 months to record and mix it the way I wanted.

How did you personally get into the industry?

This is actually a pretty funny story! I’m originally from Springfield, Massachusetts. When I was a kid I always wanted to move to Southern California to be a musician (doesn’t everybody!). Anyway, when I turned 21 I left Mass. And drove across country to Southern California.

The only thing I really knew out here was Hollywood, so I drove to Hollywood. I didn’t have a place to stay, didn’t know anybody, didn’t have a job, and oh yeah, I didn’t have any money!!!

So I showed up in Hollywood, took a look around and said “What the hell is this!!!” for those of you who have been to Hollywood, you know what I’m talking about. Hollywood isn’t exactly the way they portray it on T.V., it’s pretty much a dump! The only other thing I knew in California was Disneyland, so I stopped some bum on the street and asked him where Mickey Mouse lived. He pointed me about 45 minutes south to Orange County.

So I picked up a newspaper and I got a job the very next day selling keyboards at the Guitar Center. I was sleeping either in my car or on Huntington Beach at this point, so I was looking for anything I could findâ?¦I knew about music & keyboardsâ?¦what the hell! The next day I started and believe it or not, the very first person to walk in the store who I waited on happened to be a producer for a new software company starting up called Virgin Mastertronic.

Music was always my first love and video games were second. Never in my whole life did I ever think of putting my 2 loves togetherâ?¦until that day. I became the first tester at Virgin the next day. (A tester is somebody who they pay to play games and find things wrong with them) There were only about 15 people at Virgin at the time, so they didn’t need a full time musician.

When the first opportunity arose for music (Prince of Persia on the Gameboy), I jumped on it. I would sit down with the programmer every chance I got to learn about the machines. I know nothing about programming. I just know music and games. It’s definitely been a plus in my careerâ?¦I mean think about itâ?¦how do you program the blues or rock-n-roll that’s just something you feel! Anyway, I worked on Prince of Persia for free and on the weekends and after work. The V.P. of the company was so impressed he made me the music guy! My next game was Global Gladiators on the Genesis which won “Best music of the year” and I’ve been doing it ever since! (10 years)

I’m in a band at high school and play the guitar, could we as a band write music for games?

Sure, there’s about 2000 games a year that come out on all the platforms!! 2000!!! That means there’s lots of music that’s needed and lots of music styles. If if you only write a particular style there’s probably someone out there looking for it! Even my dad played live accordion on one of my Earthworm Jim tunes!!

What do you consider to be an effective piece of in-game music?

A piece of greatly written music that gets the player so hyped up that he can’t wait to get to the next level just to hear the next tune! I don’t necessarily believe that the music has to set the exact mood of the level. I just want great music all the time! It could ambient or it could be in your face. As long as it’s a greatly written piece of music, everyone will like it. It of course has to generally match the level or action on screen. I mean you wouldn’t want to hear polka music playing in Half-Life!

How do you begin a piece of music, are you ever given visual aids to see how the game looks and plays first?

Sometimes I may get painted or hand drawn storyboards of the rooms or backgrounds. Mostly I like to just play the game with the sound off and wait for things to start coming to me.

What game in your opinion uses music to the greatest effect?

Any of the ones I’ve worked on of course! heheheheheee I guess I’d be a bit biased if I mentioned any of the games I worked on, so I wont. Seriously, there are so many games out there that do it well in different ways. And it’s not necessarily just music but sound design also. I mean a lot of sports games get you so pumped up your controller slips out of your hand from the sweat! Or a game like Thief or System Shock where you hear sounds and you start freaking out!

Music-wise there’s games like Parappa which are great and crack me up! I don’t think that game would have been as popular as it was if it wasn’t for the great music. I thought the music in Metal Gear Solid was also very effective… although it got a little repetitive after 16 hours, it still set a great mood.

What will I get paid?

It depends on the amount of music and the amount of negotiating experience you have. You can make anywhere from $20,000 to $125,000. I would say the average project is about $40,000 to $60,000. It will be going higher with all the DVD stuff coming out because there will need to be a lot more sound!

Where and how should I advertise my services?

E3 and the Game Developers Conference! Also, make a website and e-mail everyone in the industry to go check out your site and download your music.

What’s the best way to supply the music I make to the publisher/developer?

Every platform is different and every game is different. But for the most part music is done by giving either .wav files (PC) or .aif (Mac). If your doing sound effects you’ll need to put them in the appropriate platform format. Dreamcast converts .wav files, Playstation 1 & 2 convert .aif, Xbox, PC & Nintendo all convert .wav’s. For most of those machines mentioned you need extra hardware supplied by the manufactures in order to convert the sound effects.

Thanks Tommy!

4 responses to TOMMY TALLARICO, Video Game Composer

  1. 

    dude, ur awsome!!!! i loved ur show (judgement day), while i had digital cable. i have an exteremly amazing game for ur burried treasures segment. its called, SEPTERRA CORE, my valkyrie studios. u must try it, you’ll luv it. its for pc. the graphics are awsome for their time. the sound track is fantastic. the voice overs r done perfectly. if you rn’t too busy with ur rich life to give a damb, write me too email and gamemastergleb@mindless.com. ur right victor is a loser.

    Like

  2. 
    Brandon Stanway May 12, 2005 at 2:02 am

    Tommy!
    You rock, an inspiration for videogame enthusiasts who love music and want to get into the industry!

    Like

  3. 

    That so awesome.
    I to am trying to get in to the music side of the video game industry but I just do not know where to get started. Have any advice?

    Like

  4. 

    Awesome interview. Great inspiration

    Like

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