We finish off the mini-series of Tomb Raider with a fantastic treat for those who have been following the past few weeks.
An interview with the composer of the first three games, Nathan McCree.
First of all, a huge thanks to him for taking the time to answer my questions, and in great detail too. We were talking for 2 hours over 20 years of his career, and it was great to read some insight into what went on at Core Design between 1996 and 1998.
But, for those who are unfamiliar, Nathan created the iconic music for the very first three Tomb Raider games. If ever you heard the music when you picked up a secret, or was facing against a T-Rex, he created them.
Here’s a sample of that music:
Since then he’s gone on to set up his own studio to give his valuable insight to those in need.
The interview goes from his beginnings in the industry, to his work at Core Design, and what has happened since. A great read from start to finish!
So without further ado:
Daryl: First of all Nathan, much appreciated for giving me the opportunity to talk with you about Tomb Raider, it should be great to read how the iconic music came about. What made you decide that you wanted to compose music for games to start with?
I started writing music when I was 11 – my Dad bought me a Korg Delta synthesizer and I used his 4 track reel to reel tape recorder to multi track. I studied Computer Science at Kingston University and got my first job with Core Design as a programmer.
My first job was to code a music sequencer for the Sega Mega Drive – I wrote some music on it to demonstrate how it worked and the boss liked the music so much he asked me to write the music for one of their games – it was an Asterix game.
So I had a job change overnight and never did another bit of coding. I have been writing music and making sounds for games ever since. 20 years now.
It seems only lately that you’ve been known as the guy who created Tomb Raider’s music, especially with the reboot being released this year. Does it surprise you that almost 20 years on you’re being recognized & thanked for creating an iconic soundtrack?
Well no not really. I had a bit of a fame boost when the game first came out but unfortunately being famous in the games industry does not really get you recognition in the music and film industries.
It’s good to hear that people are beginning to take notice of games composers. Many of them are very talented indeed.
Starting with the first game, were there influences that you drew from for Tomb Raider’s music?
Yes I suppose so – I think every composer draws influences from somewhere. It’s not a concious thing you do. Sometimes you start writing a piece of music and then you think, “shit, that sounds exactly like ‘bla bla’” and you then have to throw it away and start again.
So I didn’t consciously make it sound like one thing or another. The main idea was that we wanted it to sound like English classical music. So I guess my influences came from English classical music that my Dad used to play to me whan I was small. I spent a lot of time singing in a choir from the age of 6 so a lot of the harmonies and progressions would have come from choral music too.
I’m sure there were many versions of the music before we came across it in the final version, but as the levels were being designed, did you see them from an early state to give you a good enough idea of what music could fit well or be refined with for each of them? Are there any levels you remember being vastly different from what we eventually saw?
In fact you’re quite wrong here… there was no time to interate on the tunes.
Every tune was written once, and that version went in the game. I wrote the entire score for TR1 in 4 weeks. And no, I didn’t really see the levels in an ‘early state’. If I was lucky I got to see the area where we needed some music, or some screen shot or something, but most of the time I was working from minimal word descriptions like, “Under water”, “T-Rex”, “Caves” etc.
That’s interesting, a lot of people assume that you’re given a lot of insight as to how the soundtrack should be. Did the schedule of the other two sequels in only two short years only ramp up the score needed for those?
Yeah well we are talking about game development over 15 years ago. Things were very different then.
For the next 2 games, the situation changed a little, but not much. I was still getting very limited descriptions for what musical elements we needed. You should also be aware that I was working on many other games each year and so my available time to work on TR was limited.
However I did immerse myself in TR2 much more and managed to spend 3 months on the project. So in fact it was me who ramped up the content of the music. TR1 was extremely thin on the ground with music and I was determined to make a better job of it for TR2.
TR3 was a different story again. I had left Core Design after TR2 to go freelance and I was contracted in to do the music for TR3. The pay was better and now I could decide how much time to devote to the project. I think it was 4 months in the end for TR3. And once again, it was my decision how much and where to place the music.
TR2 was the first game I played through, and the music always used to keep me on my toes, so when I first got it in Christmas ‘97, it’s usually the music I remember most from the game. What was it like working at Core Design in their heyday between 1996 and 1998 on the trilogy while working on other projects?
Well the people I was working with were great fun and we had a lot of laughs but the work load was stressful to say the least.
Between 93 and 96 I was knocking out about 12 games per year. One game I remember took me 1 week to write the entire score. I didn’t sleep much and I certainly didn’t go home. We had beds and showers in the office so it was a case of work, sleep, work, sleep. Lot’s of pizza, coffee and cigarettes.
In 96 with the advent of the CD based consoles we had to up our game as we were now competing with the music and film industries. So the amount of games per year slowed down as the projects were much larger, but the workload remained the same. I loved every minute of it and I wrote loads of music but I am glad I was in my early 20s when all that was going on. I don’t think my body would stand up to that kind of abuse now!
There were some shocking moments though – I remember seeing one of my workmates looking very grey and shaking one night because he had been working no-stop for over 72 hours. He was not very well and was finally allowed to go home for some rest! It was a crazy time.
Certainly sounds like it! Looking back, are there any tracks that you were surprised with of how well it worked in one of the games? The encounter with a T-Rex springs to mind for me! Were there any highlights from each of the 3 games for you, while composing the music and/or playing them as well?
Yeah sure – I think the one that does it for me is the tune “Venice” for the Venice level in TR2. I am also very fond of the tune “Where Depths Unfold” which is the choral music you here when Lara is swimming underwater in TR1. I find that tune quite spooky.
Venice is definitely a favourite of mine, along with the track featured in the end credits and when Lara rides the snowmobile. You mentioned leaving Core Design in the middle of TR3, and there were probably early plans for TR4 around the time you left. Were you offered to compose for 4, or did you think it was time to move on? What did you think to the scores of Tomb Raider 4 up to Angel of Darkness if you have come across them?
Ah yes that track is called “The Skidoo”. Yes that works pretty well. No there was not ‘offer’ for me to work on TR4 – to be honest, I didn’t want to work on the project anymore – 3 was enough for me. Yes I have listened to all the TR scores.
In fact I interviewed Pete to replace me at Core Design. He was enthusiastic and I felt his productions were good. I liked his adaptation of my themes for TR4 but for the rest of the music I think something got lost which it seems has never returned to the music since I left the project.
I agree, from 4 I did start to lose interest in the series, they even got rid of Lara’s Home and the butler, and replaced it with a training level, one of many faults I felt.
Yes – the whole of the original team had pratically left by then so it was a different animal by then.
A year ago, Peter Connelly uploaded the whole soundtrack of TR 4, 5 and Angel of Darkness, along with some unused tracks to SoundCloud , is there any hope we could see the same from your music in the future?
Well yes I am working on it. There is some ‘red tape’ to get through first. In fact I have much bigger plans for the music which I hope to finalise soon so watch this space.
Sounds very promising! Other games such as Zelda have kept their main theme since the beginning, and it can still be heard with the latest instalments, which helps fans with that familiarity. Do you think that completely taking away the original theme you created hurt potential fans of the subsequent games, up to this years reboot?
Yes of course – it is a complete disaster for the franchise. It is like releasing a James Bond movie without Monty Norman’s classic theme. To this day, I don’t know why Eidos decided to weaken their prize possesion!
I think a lot of us can agree with you on that. Having say Back to the Future’s theme replaced by a generic mix would completely ruin the whole film, so I’ve no idea why they thought it was necessary.
As games such as Last Of Us and Bioshock Infinite have their music at the forefront of their experience, what’s your thoughts on music today in games? Do you think it’s more important than ever to have an emotive soundtrack to drive the player?
Yes of course – I always say, music is like the glue – it is the thing that binds the project together and which gives the franchise its identity. Think of any blockbuster movie and there is always an iconic musical motif that you remember. Superman, Star Wars, James Bond, Indiana Jones – the list goes on and on.
The trouble with Holywood movies these days is that it is such a money making machine, you keep hearing the same music over and over again, and in fact it’s not very iconic or memorable, it’s just generic action music – pretty boring stuff in my opinion and unfortunately it seems to have spread to the games industry. It’s as if the composers of today have forgotten how to write a good melody.
I think technology has brought us too many sound engineers who profess to be composers and it has diluted the market. So yes it’s important to have an emotive soundtrack but let’s not forget about the melody! THAT is the most important thing. The melody is the thing you remember and the thing which gives a product it’s identity.
Very true. I saw Man of Steel in June, and the iconic soundtrack of Christopher Reeve’s era is almost part of the whole mythology now, so to have that replaced, it just didn’t feel like it could have been the great movie it might have been.
I was combing from other interviews you gave to sites over the years, and I could only find 2, mainly from around 2000 when you set up your own company with Matt Kemp called Meode (said interview here) .
Since then, we haven’t heard much from you. What’s been going on since you decided to become a freelancer?
That’s a big question… so after TR3 yes I worked with Matt for about 3 years, he was a sound engineer and drummer and an old friend so we had a lot of fun working in the music and TV indutries. So I moved away from games for a short while but to be honest the money was not as good and eventually Matt and I parted company.
In 2001 I set up McCree Music and targetted the games industry once again – I worked on many, many projects and for many companies but as a freelancer you tend to get called in when their project is in trouble. So I became good at rescuing audio on projects which were close to failure. It didn’t carry the fame that working in-house on big projects did but I was working for myself which was the real pot of gold.
In 2008 I decided to go back into full-time employment as I had 2 kids by then and the regular salary of a full-time job was better suited to my situation. I started as Lead Audio at Zoe Mode in Brighton and quickly progressed to Audio Manager. I was then asked to help out one of our sister companies in Brno, Czech Republic on a project called “Rush ‘N’ Attack”. This was Vatra – and they were also making “Silent Hill: Downpour” at the time. I really wanted to be on that project so I made myself available (quit my job at Zoe Mode) and became full-time Audio Director for Vatra at the end of 2008.
I spent 2 years there and then moved to City Interactive in Warsaw as Audio Director where we did “Sniper 2:Ghost Warrior” and “Alien Rage”.
Unfortunately I hadn’t written any music for 5 years and I was missing that so I decided that I would go freelance again – so I quit and setup my studio, this time working from Brno, Czech Republic. I have a number of projects which I am working on now and I’m writing music once again! So I’m a happy chap.
Good to know you’re writing music again, it seems that you’ve enjoyed these past 20 years in whatever project you’ve been involved in, and now you’ve setup your own studio. Can this involve any developer needing a soundtrack or sound effects for a particular game?
Yes absolutely, I have done and seen pretty much everything in games audio over the past 20 years, so I offer full asset creation (music, sound effects and VO) plus integration and audio management.
I also have a team of guys who I can bring in on a project if the workload demands it or the turnaround time needs to be quick. There is nothing we can’t handle. I also offer audio consultancy and solutions for rescuing audio, including resource scheduling, budgeting and can manage the entire job if required.
Sounds great, is there an e-mail or web address that one could reach for this?
A quick search on youTube and you can still find people remaking your tracks 16 years on such as this (link to a ‘Venice Violins’ tribute), and first time playthroughs such as this (link to ‘AlonzoOrion’s first time play through of TR 2′)
What do you think when you see these tributes?
Well my first reaction is “oh he’s done that wrong” and “that bit’s not right” etc etc. I don’t think I’ve heard a faithful remake of any of my tunes to date!
But it’s a lot of fun listening and I am honored that I have inspired people to make this stuff.
Thank you for taking the time to answer the questions, is there anything you’d like to say to those who have and still are playing the classic Tomb Raider trilogy even today?
Yes, thank you to everyone for listening to my work – keep listening and I will be releasing some more stuff soon.
My thanks again to Nathan who gave a great insight to the last 20 years of his career, and the time he spent in answering each question with great honesty and detail.
Once again, if anyone has the foresight to have a great composer to work on their game or feature, Nathan and his team can be contacted from here.