It is funny, for the longest time I was struggling to come up with the best way to introduce this interview...Should I open with a joke? A statistic? An account of a Totalwar moment? I needed to perfectly summarise the quality, and scope of Jeff van Dyck's sound production through an entire decade of lovingly created Totalwar titles.
Oddly enough when escaping into nostalgia and listening to a number of his classic pieces of music via youtube, a common thread in the comments began to emerge:
"Oh I remember this song was playing when..."
"This track was playing when I was in the battle of..."
"Awesome song, it reminds me of a particular general..."
It served to bring me to the real power that Jeff's work has always brought to the battlefield: Narrative. While the Totalwar games will always be primarily remembered for their sheer scale and innovation, it has always been the music that has told the story. Whether it was an epic battle, a small unimportant skirmish, or even just days spent sitting staring in the campaign map, Jeff's work has always helped tell the story of the people, the geography and the cultures that serve as a backdrop for the games.
Born in 1969 to Ralph Dyck (Inventor of the Roland MC-8 Micro-Composer that is often known as the "grand daddy" of all modern digital sequencers) it was no surprise that Jeff would go on to become an accomplished musician in his own right. He would begin work with the emerging juggernaut of EA Games, doing sound production for their impressive line of sports titles including Need for Speed I & II and a number of the EA Sport: NHL games.
Following this, Jeff eventually migrated with his Australian wife Angela to the Creative Assembly studio based in Brisbane. It was here that he would began a long and very sucessful relationship with the Totalwar franchise, culminating in a BAFTA award for his work on the original Shogun:Totalwar - Warlord Edition (2001) and a nomiation for a second BAFTA for Rome: Totalwar (2005).
With the imminent release of Shogun II: Totalwar, Jeff graciously took the time out to answer some questions regarding the man behind the sound of war.
Excluding the obvious influence of your father and his work, what inspired you personally to focus on Video Games as a musical medium?
Jeff: As a kid I enjoyed playing games on my old Apple II or TRS-80. Back then I also enjoyed composing and recording my own music using current technology of the time. They were both hobbies. In 1992, while in my twenties, one of my roommates had a Genesis and a SNES. We used to play EA NHL Hockey for hours and I always used to think that I could do a better job of the music and sound. One day a friend told me he saw an ad in the paper for an audio engineer at Electronic Arts Canada.
I applied and although my first application got knocked back (I didn't realise the ad said audio "software" engineer), the guys at EAC thought I had potential and offered me a job as a sound designer. It was at this point I realised that I was now getting paid to do my two main hobbies, playing games, and creating audio using technology. I haven't looked back since, and still feel incredibly lucky.
In addition to your more noted work on the Totalwar series, you initially cut your teeth on a vast number of early Electronic Arts titles. What was the learning curve like during these years and was there a particular game you were proud of?
Jeff: Certainly there was a learning curve, the main one being corporate culture. Meetings, minutes, action items, critical path, milestones, having to write music that everyone likes by a certain date...it was all foreign. The tech was familiar though...synths, sequencers, studios, I was very comfortable learning how the Genesis and SNES audio chips worked.
I suppose there a couple things can I listen to now and not cringe. FIFA International Soccer and FIFA '95 were cool as the programmer managed to find a way to have multiple samples playing at once, and you could even change pitch, albeit in a warbled way.
I also added chanting, which people seemed to like. My favourite idea though was to add sounds after you scored a goal. You could trigger sounds with the controller buttons like fireworks, horns and a guy yelling "gooooaaal!" for as long as you held the button.
Shogun: Totalwar marked a big step-up in your career in terms of profile and scale and would lead to a continued and very successful relationship with Creative Assembly. How did you originally come to land that first job?
Jeff: After 5 years, I got a bit tired of working on sports games at EAC, and my Australian wife suggested we move to Australia for a change of scene. So we moved in 1997 and I started cold calling different companies looking for work. Someone suggested I try a company called Dreamtime Entertainment.
When I called them I spoke to a guy named Michael de Plater and he said he was developing games for EA Asia Pacific. Would you believe it, I had moved half way around the world to change my life, and the first gig I land is working for EA Australia on Rugby and Cricket games! Michael said he had read good reviews of my work and was keen to work together.
Dreamtime had hired a company called Creative Assembly to develop the sports games and EA was the publisher. After a couple of games Michael emailed me and asked if I could write authentic Japanese music. I replied "of course!"
In reality I had never done anything like it, but I thought hey, how can you grow as a musician if you don't challenge yourself? Worst case scenario is they don't like it. In fact Mike Simpson (the CA creative director) knocked back my first pass of the Shogun music, saying it was too orchestral. I removed most of the orchestra and that's the version you hear in the game today.
Can still remember this song playing when my last two unit's of Warrior Monks routed six odd units of my opponents Ashigaru to win me a match. Good times.
The early Totalwar titles (Shogun, Medieval, Rome) are fondly remembered by many for having such authentic and immersive soundtracks. What influences or inspirations (if any) did you draw upon when approaching each game?
Jeff: With Shogun, the movie "Ran" was my main inspiration for the music. Also the Japanese culture in general is inspiring. Their sense of style, musical instruments, and military history made a huge impact on me. In Medieval, I researched the instruments and melodies used in that era, and combined them with some orchestral sounds. I suppose the main influence came from the instruments and haunting choral music.
When I was asked to work on Rome, CA said they were inspired by the movie Gladiator. I thought Hans Zimmer's soundtrack was awesome, and allowed it to influence the music I wrote for Rome.
In all of these games I also found inspiration in the games themselves, in the way CA presented the game, and how each game looked better than the previous. The epic scale their engine delivers is amazing!
In terms of overall process, just how does a single piece of music (track) go from idea to integration into a game? How long does this typically take?
Jeff: Generally I create an ideas folder for a game on my Mac, I'll choose a song to try and write (e.g. a Battle song), then I'll watch the game and try to find a tempo that matches the action that I see. I'll hit record and start playing for roughly 20 minutes on my keyboard. I end up with about 19 minutes of rubbish, and maybe a minute's worth of ideas that I might be happy with.
At this stage, based on my mood, I'll either take the bits that I like and orchestrate/produce them into a full song (this can take anywhere from 1 to 3 days). Otherwise I'll leave it in the ideas folder and come back to it when I need a song, but don't feel like writing from scratch.
I generally leave the game running on a separate machine so that while I'm working on a song, I can keep checking to see that it matches what I see. As far as putting the song into the game, it's as simple as exporting an MP3 and referencing it in a configuration file, boot the game and test.
If I have been given a budget to hire musicians, I'll then print out sheets of the music, book musicians for rehearsals, book a studio for the sessions, and spend a few days recording. I'll then take the live tracks and mix them into my MIDI tracks and replace the original MP3's in the game with the new live versions. Live musicians make a huge difference!
This varies quite a bit though. Some songs don't need to be performed by live musicians and can be finished in a single afternoon.
As well as personally writing music yourself, you also manage and employ others in your role as Audio Director. Just what exactly are the responsibilities of an Audio Director and what kind of relationship do you have with other members of the team (i.e Programmers, Art Designers etc.)?
Jeff: I think this is open to interpretation, as different companies have different setups, but normally I think Audio Directors tend to maintain the audio "vision" of the game. They talk to the creative directors, lead programmers, audio programmers, lead designers and lead artists and define the tech, audio style, and assets required for the game.
I think I'm a very hands-on Audio Director and I like to get my hands dirty adjusting and tweaking game audio parameters. I like to fully understand how the tech works and suggest new functions that will help make the game sound better.
Everybody on the team has audio ideas, and I feel that everyone can contribute. In the end though, the Audio Director has the final say if a sound should be in the game or not.
What do you feel is the biggest challenge/difficulty you commonly face when approaching any given game?
Jeff: The biggest challenge is time. We tend to run out of time towards the end of a project, and we have to cut features. I think this happens because we're constantly inspired by the game as it progresses, and we get a lot of those "wouldn't it be cool if..." moments.
Specifically in TW, we also have the challenge of needing to represent the sound of thousands of men through a sound system that can play a max of 256 sounds at once. Getting the balance and priorities just right is a never ending juggling act.
With the imminent release of Shogun 2, many long-time fans of the series are eagerly anticipating the return to feudal Japan. Given the success and critical acclaim of your work on the original game, did you feel any added pressure when approaching the sequel?
Jeff: Yes indeed. I certainly stressed more this time around as there is a lot of expectation to replicate the quality of the original Shogun. I always find it hard to schedule inspiration. On Shogun 2 I tried to not let this get to me, and put myself in the same headspace as the original as much as possible.
That said, the original Shogun came out 10 years ago, and I've learned a lot more about music since. So it's inevitable that this time round it will sound different. I'd like to think it sounds better, due to having more experience, and having the opportunity to use live musicians.
The end result is very subjective though, and it's really up to the end user to decide. It's hard to please everyone.
What can fans expect from the soundtrack of Shogun 2? Will it be a big departure from the original or has it been crafted in a similar manner?
Jeff: I think they will find the approach I took is similar, with a focus on rhythm from the Taiko drums, and Japanese style melodies played on the Shakuhachi and Shinobue. There is certainly more orchestra this time around, and I did this because of the sheer epic nature of the game. Having a massive string and brass section play a low note and huge Taiko drums banging a militant rhythm just feels right to me.
It may not be 100% authentic, but I tried to get the same effect by layering 10 Kotos at once and it didn't achieve the same effect. People have liked my decisions in the past, and hopefully they'll get where I'm coming from this time around too.
If you had to pick a single piece of music you have created in your career as a favourite, what would it be and why?
Jeff: Tough question! I quite like the main menu theme from Rome Total War, because it's just melody with no drums (which is unusual for me). Also from the Rome soundtrack, the song called "Epic" is also a favourite because it didn't make it into the game (I couldn't figure out where to put it) and has some really nice mandolin playing in it from my good friend Saki Kaskas.
One of my favorites too! I would literally not start playing my campaign and just sit and listen to it in the menu screen quite often.
In addition to your work in the game industry, you have more recently begun working of films. Is this something you see yourself moving into full time or are video games still your primary focus? What is the biggest difference between the two?
Jeff: I would like to do more films! Movie directors and producers out there...composer for hire!
I will do video games for as long as I can, I really enjoy working on them. Working on films is great too, and the main difference is film is time locked. You know exactly how long each moment will be and can make the music time out perfectly.
In games, you generally don't know how long a gamer will take to do something so you need to make the music interactive and have the music loop (which I hate) or have multiple variants to avoid repetition.
Aside from future Totalwar games, where are we likely to hear you next?
Jeff: There are some exciting projects coming out of both Creative Assembly and Sega Studios Brisbane and I'm currently involved with both. Time wise, we'll just have to wait and see
Finally the tough ones... Favourite Game, Band/Artist and Movie?
Jeff: Favourite games: Dead Space, Ghost Recon series, Legend of Zelda series.
Favourite bands/artists: Frank Zappa, The Beatles, RATM, Pendulum, Don Davis
Favourite movies: 2001, Alien, Avatar, The Usual Suspects
Thank you very much for your time Jeff
Jeff: No worries