Game Music

From Stunts Into The Shadows: Rich Douglas Interview

From Stunts Into The Shadows: Rich Douglas Interview

November 1, 2012 | | Comment? Share thison Facebook From Stunts Into The Shadows: Rich Douglas Interviewon Twitter

Rich Douglas is a man who has truly found his spot in the industry. Since 2006, Douglas has worked with industry legends and been heard all around the world making music for the most intense action sets to the more mysterious atmospheric fantasies. Today, he is here with us to talk about his latest project, Shadowgate.

Over the course of his career, Douglas has not only composed for videogames, but also movies and personal pet projects ranging from Star Trek to James Bond, and his story is nothing short of infectiously inspirational.

OSV: Thanks for taking the time to talk to us today, Rich! Let’s start out at the very beginning, where are you from?

Douglas: I’m from Dallas, Texas.

OSV: Was music a big part of your childhood? What sparked your interest in music early on?

Douglas: Absolutely! Film music is what started it all actually.. while all of my friends were listening to the latest and greatest rock and hip hop albums I was always listening to film scores. I would always catch myself humming music from films when playing games and wandering around, and not just well known themes either. Many of the pieces I found myself humming or playing over and over again in my head were lesser know film cues… that’s when I knew that this was something I was becoming passionate about. It wasn’t until my early twenties when I found out that I had an aptitude for music composition.

OSV: What about video games? Do you remember which video game that first got your attention?

Douglas: Video games have always been a huge part of my life and to this day I’m still an avid gamer.. on both new and old systems. If I had to pick one game which really got my attention early on however..it’d have to be Flashback: The Quest For Identity on the Super Nintendo. I remember renting this game one Saturday afternoon and being absolutely blown away by the sense of atmosphere and the overall cinematic vibe of the game. While there were tons of great games on the SNES, there were also hundreds of really terrible titles.. Flashback really stood out to me. In fact, it sort of became an obsession as I got older (Laughs).

I currently own Flashback for my SNES, Genesis, Sega CD, and 3DO and play through it at least once a year. I have even re-orchestrated a handful of themes from the game which was posted over at Overclocked Remix.

OSV: So you began taking a great interest in film music and music performance in high school? What were some of the scores you would listen to and play?

Douglas: I started collecting film scores at age 12… I think my collection is now close to 600 soundtracks. In fact, it’s worth mentioning that every bit of music theory I have learned has come from listening to those film scores. I’m not classically trained and have never had one piano lesson. I’m 100% self taught and grew up with teachers like Jerry Goldsmith, Hans Zimmer, and John Barry helping me figure out what sounds cinematic and cool. When I was younger I found myself listening to all three of the Indiana Jones scores by John Williams and all of the James Bond film scores… mainly the Bond scores by the great John Barry.

That being said, I played guitar when I was a kid and would always find myself belting out the James Bond Theme whenever I could. I’m sort of a 007 super fan and ever since I found out I had the aptitude to compose original music I’ve been putting together my own Bond music.. most of which can be heard and downloaded via my “James Bond Music Archive”

I even have this odd cult James Bond fan following on Youtube. (Laughs) Crazy stuff!

OSV: You first attended film school before having a change of heart and began studying level design at SMU. What can you tell us about your time there and the basis of the change in direction for you?

Douglas: I always knew that I wanted to do something creative but just couldn’t nail down exactly what it was I wanted to do, so film school seemed like a great place to start. When I was there I picked up my first synthesizer on a dare and actually scored a student short. Turns out I could play and compose music pretty well.. albeit a bit rough around the edges at the time, but my ear was definitely trained enough to put together notes in a semi pleasing manner. While in college I had continued on with my obsession with gaming and eventually wanted to learn what made these games tick, so I got into level editing software. I started creating my own quake levels and fell in love with that side of the development process. The change in direction to The Guildhall came about because I loved the game development process so much that I wanted to find out how to break into the game industry. I had finally found my creative outlet and how I could turn said outlet into a career.

That said, The Guildhall at SMU was (at the time) the only school with a legit degree program focusing on level design, art, or coding so it was the natural choice. Upon starting the program, I learned proper level design techniques and ended up scoring pretty much all of the student projects. Turns out I was the only musically inclined person in the program which kept me extremely busy while I was there (Laughs).

By the end of the program I wasn’t doing level design anymore and the head of the program let me be the audio lead on our senior project.. which was unheard of as they don’t have an audio program and I was really supposed to focus on level design on the final project in order to graduate. The Guildhall was a fantastic experience, I met people who I’m not only still good friends with, but several of which are clients as they went on to start their own game companies.

Anyone wanting to break into the game industry as a sound designer or composer should really consider learning level design and/or programming. Knowing implementation techniques and lingo has been most helpful and extremely important for the progression of my career as a sound guy and composer.

OSV: In 2005, you were hired fresh off your graduation by John Carmack’s ID Mobile studio. How was it working with Carmack?

Douglas: John is an amazingly nice guy, and probably one of the smartest programmers I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. If memory serves, for Orcs and Elves he locked himself in a hotel room and wrote the entire game engine in a weekend, that just blew my mind. Like many other gamers, Wolfenstein 3D was one of my favorite PC games in the early 90s so it was an honor to work with Carmack at Id Mobile (back then: Fountainhead Entertainment). It’s cool to meet your idols… it’s way cooler to be able to work with them!

OSV: You became the composer on the popular Orcs and Elves series during your time at IDM. Tell us a little bit about your experience composing your first full commercial game release.

Douglas: Not only was I the composer, but I also did all of the sound design and actually designed / scripted around 6 of the final levels. That facet of Id Software only had a team of 8 so I was pulling triple duty… in fact we were all testers as well lol. At Id I was technically a Level Designer and took the job under the assumption that would be my job and career path in the gaming industry. The music for O & E was actually something I did in my off hours when I got home every night, in fact the team didn’t know I could compose music until I composed a demo and brought it in for them to hear. That demo actually became the O & E menu music… John and the rest of the team fell in love with it and from there I composed the rest of the game’s score. It was a surreal experience to be sure since this would be the very first “real” game which my music would be heard in, in fact it was nerve racking!

The score couldn’t be too crazy since this was a time well before iPhones and the game was meant to be a cell phone game for J2ME (java) handsets. So I couldn’t do adaptive music and had to keep the pieces short to conserve space. These phones didn’t have WIFI access and little to no memory so the final game package had to be uber small and a quick download. That said, I had to pick and choose what was important to score and focused on setting the mood for each level with a short 10 or 15 second piece as well as scoring the boss fights.

OSV: You went on to work with Paradigm Entertainment and doing the audio for Stuntman Ignition. Was the change in music style and employer difficult for you in any way, or was it an overall good experience?

Douglas: It was a wonderful experience and a great move for me. Paradigm was like working in a fraternity house, we all had a great time and the team was comprised of extremely talented people… many of which became great friends and clients after I went freelance. Going from doing mobile phone games (which was nowhere near as big as it is now) to working on a game which would be on the Xbox 360 and PS3 was huge.. and most importantly it was my first official Sound Designer job. Much of the audio was contracted out, but I was in charge of placing and mixing all of the music sound heard in the game which was no easy task. That is a prime example of how knowing level design and implementation can be helpful for audio guys, it made the process so much easier as I was using the level editor for placing all of the audio.

Music wise, I ended up scoring something like 10 of the levels. I got that part of the job almost in the same manner I did at Id Mobile, by putting myself out there and presenting the producers with a demo I did for one of the levels. The demo piece was a very James Bondesque cue for one of the Never Kill Me Again levels, which they liked so much it ended up staying in the game. Lol, the glorious thing about having access to the level editor and being in charge of audio implementation is that I could sneak pieces of my own music into the game, which I did more than a handful of times to demo my stuntman music to the production team. That technique actually worked and before too long I was officially brought on as the games third composer.

When the game was completed, I ended up scoring all of Strike Force Omega, most of Never Kill Me Again, half of Aftershock, and a couple of levels in Overdrive. It was a really cool project for me because every level set was essentially a different type of film in which you were a stunt driver. Strike Force was an 80s style action romp which ended up getting a synth orchestral score in the style of Jerry Goldsmiths Rambo First Blood Part 2 and Extreme Prejudice scores. While Overdrive was an over the top 90s style action film so I went for the jugular with Hans Zimmer / Media Ventures style action writing.

It was a great experience, and a sad day when THQ shut us down four years ago due to cutbacks. But, turns out that was the best thing to happen to me as it gave me the push I needed to just take the plunge and go into business for myself.

OSV: Since 2007, you’ve steadily worked your way up the industry ladder and showcased a very impressive range of sound, and worked on titles across nearly all platforms. What would you say is the key to being a successful composer based on your experience?

Douglas: Being a chameleon and NOT HAVING AN ATTITUDE. The fact of the matter is that most of the time you’re expected to sound like other popular film composers and you have to be able to do a variety of genres. I’ll be scoring a short romance film one week and doing a high octane action piece for an iOS game the next. What many up and coming composers don’t realize is that there are so many other composers out there trying to get the same gigs they are. The market is flooded, and it’s definitely a “buyers market.” Having an attitude or acting like a primadonna isn’t going to get you anywhere as a composer, they’ll just fire you and hire someone else. Many times there are well over 100 composers who developers are looking at for a specific project. From there they will narrow it down to 25 or so and then it becomes a grudge match between the final 5 to 10 composers who will all be submitting demo pieces.

It’s nerve racking, but when you finally do land your first paying gig… it’s the most gratifying and amazing thing in the world! It’s also important to pick your battles and be open to compromise.. as well as being able to function on a lack of sleep (Laughs).

OSV: In addition to videogames, you’ve also worked as a film composer on a number of short films, and most recently you did the score to Mulberry Stains, which sounds fantastic! How would you describe the differences between composing for film and videogames? Do you prefer any over the other?

Douglas: Thanks, really happy with how Mulberry turned out! The differences are astounding actually, scoring games is a total about face from scoring films. When scoring film, there are really specific beats I have to hit to match the on screen action or to help add to the drama of a scene. It is truly magical when the music works in tandem with a scene and helps take it to the next level. Many times when I’m scoring games I’ll just get screen shots and a description of what is going on in the level rather than specific beats to hit so it allows me to be much more free in my composing process.

Every now and again though, that film scoring experience does help when scoring cut scenes. Of course, games and audio engines like Wwise are calling for much more interactive game scoring these days so it’s really becoming a lot like scoring films. But they’re both different and rewarding in their own ways so I really don’t have a favorite. Composing music in general and being able to get paid for it is a dream. I love writing any kind of music, for any kind of project!

OSV: Of course, we must talk about what you are most currently working on; The revival of Shadowgate. How did you land this job? Were you familiar with the game and its soundtrack beforehand?

Douglas: Shadowgate is actually one of my all time favorite games on the NES, a game that I still play to this day (played a little last Friday actually). The music from Shadowgate is one of my earliest memories of hearing and remembering game music, it was just so atmospheric and thematic. I actually got this job two years ago when I placed a re orchestrated suite of Shadowgate music up onto Youtube. Several months ago, Dave stumbled across said video and immediately shot over an email… which I was extremely honored to receive. He loved that Shadowgate suite so much that he wanted to bring me on board to score this new version, which I definitely couldn’t pass up!

That video has since been removed for obvious reasons and I recently redid my version of Castle Halls for the purposes of the kickstarter campaign going on right now. In fact, after you’re done reading this… go help get Shadowgate kickstarted!

OSV: Being the original creators of the game, how much freedom has Dave and Karl given you on this project? Have they been hands on in the direction of the sound design?

Douglas: Dave and Karl are great to work for, they’re pretty much letting me do what I want and trust my judgment. It’s always flattering when a client gives you so much freedom and trusts your skills enough to let you tackle the audio assault however you please. I’m sure once we get deeper into development they’ll have more feedback, but that is all part of the process. Since landing this gig, Dave and I have chatted on the phone quite a bit about the direction of the game and its music and already have a great re-pore. This is gonna be such a fun project to work on, and a wonderfully passionate team to work with!

OSV: Masuno’s soundtrack was really one of the best on the NES system, but updating music from limited hardware can still be challenging. How do you approach arranging the pieces from the original Shadowgate?

Douglas: I totally agree, there’s some really strong thematic material in the score despite the limited instrument range Masuno had to work with! I usually start by learning the note progressions of the piece I’m tackling by ear and simply doing a direct interpretation of the chiptune piece with modern orchestral sample libraries. Even though the piece sounds pretty cool at this point.. there’s still so much more that can be done to jazz it up. So from here I start adding in additional instrumentation to beef up the arrangement and add in my own reversals and hooks to keep things interesting.

OSV: What was your equipment for the project?

Douglas: A better question is what sample libraries am I not using on this project (Laughs). I’m mainly using Cinebrass by cinesamples, Albion by spitfire, a slew of percussion from 8dio, Symphony of Voices by spectrasonics, Symphonic Choir by east west, and some unique samples from the talented chaps over at embertone. Of course I’ve only done a handful of cues so far, and there’s a chance we may bring on a female soloist for a couple of the pieces. For sequencing I use Cakewalk Sonar 8 and for mastering I use Adobe Audition 3 with a slew of third party plug ins.

OSV: You mentioned in your insightful sound walkthrough video that you’ve used a lot of practical means to capture the sounds you are using in this game. Can you give us a few examples of how exactly you recorded the different sound effects?

Douglas: I’m so glad you found my little sound walkthrough insightful! Some of the sounds come from a slew of sound libraries and are then mangled. For the handful of sounds that are recorded, I use a Fostex FR2 LE digital field recorder with a shotgun mic to capture the audio I’m after. Something like environmental wind is a pretty simple process and involves simply setting the mic on a tripod in a quiet area, hitting record, then dropping the wav files onto my audio workstation at home for chopping / mastering. I also use a Tascam DR 07 recorder quite a bit of the time which is small enough to fit in my pocket and really cost effective. It’s amazing the quality of sound I can get from that little device! Recording things like animal sounds can be a bit tricky and requires some serious patience.

OSV: The game makes use of puzzle-based sound design, can you elaborate on that?

Douglas: Not at this time :).

OSV: Apart from the original NES soundtrack, have you drawn any inspiration from elsewhere, be it videogames or movies?

Douglas: Game music wise I’ve been mainly listening to, drum roll please, the original Shadowgate chiptunes. Out of my film score collection I’ve been listening to a lot of Conan The Barbarian and Breakdown by Basil Poledouris as well as The Edge and The 13th Warrior by Jerry Goldsmith. Both Goldsmith and Poledouris are two of my favorite composers and have written some amazing adventure / fantasy scores. They will definitely be a point of inspiration for me over the next year!

OSV: We’ve heard your fantastic rendition of a few of the tracks in the game, but given that the game will feature some new puzzles and rooms, will there be any new original compositions by you as well?

Douglas: Absolutely! I do plan on doing my fair share of original material for the game. However, since Kemco has given us the rights to the original NES score I will definitely be working those themes in when I can. I know this is a popular score and am not going to let fans of the original chiptunes down. There will be direct interpretations of some of the themes as well as some new themes composed for this version.

OSV: Before I let you go back to your busy schedule, I’d like to ask what other games and movies we will be able to hear your music in 2012 and 2013?

Douglas: You’ll be able to hear more of my music in Stan Lee’s Verticus for iOS devices (which has been approved and should be hitting the app store within the next month), Lifeless Planet by Stage 2 Interactive, and a tactical shooter called Takedown by Serallan LLC.

OSV: Thank you so much for all your time today Rich, and all of us wish you the best of luck and success with Shadowgate and your future projects!

Douglas: It’s been a pleasure, and I’ve really enjoyed answering your insightful questions! Thanks for the opportunity, and I hope that you all end up digging the music and sound work I put together for Shadowgate. It’s a fantastic project and one that I’m honored to be a part of!

—————

You can help Rich and the team in helping fund the new Shadowgate at their Kickstarter campaign, where $30 will land you a digital copy of the game as well as Rich’s soundtrack. Rich Douglas’s website can be found at http://richdouglas.wix.com/

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