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MLG Meets: Tommy Tallarico

February 23rd, 2010 by

Tommy Tallarico is one of the most prolific and influential men in video games, having worked on close to 300 video games across the span of his career. If you’ve picked up a controller in the last twenty years or so, chances are you’ve played a game with his music in it, with credits including some of the largest franchises in the history of gaming. Midlife Gamer got some time in with Tommy recently to talk video game soundtracks, classical music and Guinness World Records.

Xero: First question of course is, who are you, and what do you do?

Tommy Tallarico: My name is Tommy Tallarico and I’ve been a video game composer and sound designer for over 20 years and have been privileged enough to have worked on over 275 games including such franchises as Earthworm Jim, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, Prince of Persia, Disney’s Aladdin, Spider-Man, Metroid Prime, Sonic the Hedgehog, Madden Football, Blitz Football, Unreal, Pac-Man, James Bond, Knockout Kings, Mortal Kombat, Test Drive, Scooby Doo, WWE, Lineage, Twisted Metal & Time Crisis.  I’ve also co-created, produced and hosted 3 worldwide television shows about video games including the Electric Playground (started in 1995) which is the longest running video game television show in history.

I’m the founder, Chairman of the Board and CEO of the Game Audio Network Guild (G.A.N.G.), which is a non-profit organization educating and heightening the awareness of audio for the interactive world.  I’m an Advisory Board member for the Game Developers Conference, a Governor for the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences (NARAS/GRAMMY’s), a spokesperson for the Entertainment Consumers Association, a proud member of the International Game Developers Association and a nominating peer panel leader for the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences.

In 2002, I teamed up with fellow video game composer Jack Wall (Myst, Mass Effect, Splinter Cell) to create Video Games Live. My whole life, my two greatest loves and passions were always music and video games.  That was all I ever thought about and dreamed about.  It’s been an amazing honor and journey to be able to work in this industry for so long and I feel very fortunate to be able to continue doing it year after year. Tommy’s full bio can be found here.

X: We ask everyone we interview here at Midlife Gamer a very important question to get things kicked off, what is your favourite beverage and biscuit (I believe you US chaps call them cookies)?

TT: Lemonade and Oreos… although the two definitely do not go well together! I believe you British chaps call lemonade Sprite or 7-UP.  Our version is a quaint little refreshment made with lemons, water and sugar! (Touché! – Ed)

X: You hold the world record for having worked on the most number of video games. What is your current count, and what’s it like to be a world record holder?

TT: I’m currently at 279 and counting.  My mom doesn’t know too much about video games so none of my other accolades were that impressive to her.  But when I told her about the Guinness World Record she was extremely proud.  So that right there was worth all the hard work over the past two decades!

X: Are there any particular favourites of the games you’ve worked on?

TT: My two favorites are probably Earthworm Jim and Advent Rising.  Earthworm Jim because the project was so much fun to work on.  Our small team of friends had worked together on so many great products before that, but for that project we were just given a timeframe to complete whatever we wanted to. We would come in and just try to make each other laugh.  That was pretty much the game design for the entire project.  So that one was a lot of fun and I think you can really feel that in the final product.  Advent Rising (although not a popular or big selling game) was also a great joy for me because I finally got the chance to compose an Italian Opera which is something that I always wanted to do.  It’s probably the music that I’m most proud of from a composition standpoint.

X: Are you currently working on the music for any games in development? If so, which ones, if not, why the hiatus?

TT: I perform around 60 shows a year with Video Games Live now so I’ve gone to doing about 7 to 10 game projects a year to around 1 or 2.  Earlier this year I wrote 3 songs for the new Sonic game (Sonic & the Black Knight) and I’m just finishing up a Wii game called Flip’s Twisted World which I’ve been working on for almost two years in my spare time.

X: For those of our readers that aren’t in the know, what is Video Games Live?

TT: Video Games Live is all the greatest video game music of all time played by a live orchestra and choir, but what really makes it unique is that everything is completely synchronized to video, automated state-of-the-art lighting & special effects, stage-show production, interactive elements where we bring people up on stage and they play a video game while the orchestra changes the music in real time on the fly, depending on what the person does.  I like to describe Video Games Live as having the power and emotion of a symphony orchestra and combining it with the energy and excitement of a rock concert and mixing that together with the interactivity, cutting-edge visuals, technology, and fun that video games provide.

X: VGL is billed as including an extravagant stage show, special effects, accompanying animation and even actors on stage; do you feel the classical audience of the 21st century is uninterested in simply watching an orchestra perform?

I’ve been a video game composer for over 20 years and my partner in Video Games Live, Jack Wall, has been doing it for over 13 years. My goal in creating Video Games Live was that I wanted to prove to the world how culturally significant and artistic video games have become. I didn’t want to just put on a symphony concert for hardcore gamers, I wanted to do a show. Not necessarily even a concert, but a complete celebration of the video game industry and so the way we designed the show was with everyone in mind.

You don’t have to know a thing about video games in order to come out to the show and have a greater appreciation for video games in general and specifically game music. Most of the letters and emails we get after a performance are from non-gamers. Parallel to that, it’s also ushering in a whole new generation to come and appreciate a symphony.  We’ll get letters from parents after the show telling us that they took their 8 year old daughter to the show and she wants to start taking violin lessons so she can learn and play the music in our show.  The same thing happened to me over 30 years ago when I saw the Rocky & Star Wars movies.  For the first time I really paid attention to symphonic music which in turn got me hooked on the masters like Beethoven & Mozart.  I believe pop culture can have very positive influences on other (and more classic) forms of art.  Video games are one of them.  They have evolved into our culture and have become one of the top entertainments of choice for the 21st century.

X: When I saw the final concert of the European tour back in December, a significant portion of the stage show is conversation with industry veterans like Ralph Baer, positivity-creating community-driven competitions such as ‘human space invaders’ and even a few words from yourself regarding the ‘people who think video games cause violence’. Is there a political message behind VGL, are you trying to be the Rage Against The Machine of the HD Generation?

TT: Hell yeah!  It reflects my goal of proving to the world how culturally significant and artistic video games have become.  Only a certain percentage of our audiences are hardcore gamers so it’s important to show the history of games and where they came from as well as where they’re headed!

X: Are there any games which you’ve always wanted to include as part of the repertoire of the show, perhaps a franchise close to your heart, which you’ve had to leave out because it simply doesn’t translate well to a live show?

TT: Nothing yet, but it took me a long time to figure out a good way to get the Metroid franchise to sound right.  It was challenging because I wanted to retain that old school feel while still incorporating a big symphonic sound.

X: Have you run into any copyright issues with the music on the show, or as part of the album? How do the original composers feel about VGL?

TT: All of the composers around the world love the idea of VGL and have always been extremely supportive along the way.  Square-Enix does not allow us to use their video during our performances because they have their own Final Fantasy touring concert that they do a few times a year.  They also do not allow us to use any of their music on our CD’s or DVD/Blu-Ray’s.  It’s unfortunate, but we must respect their wishes.

X: The Video Games Live album reached the top ten of the American album charts, what do you think this means for game music in general? Additionally, when can we expect another album and is there any hint as to what the track list might look like?

TT: We’ll be recording our 2nd album during our big nationwide PBS television special which we’re taping on April 1st in New Orleans with the Louisiana Philharmonic.  There will be a CD, DVD & Blu-Ray available worldwide.

I think that the success of the album had a positive impact on getting game music more respected (and also proved that it doesn’t need video, lighting and all the other normal bells & whistles we have at our show for the music to be popular).  I think the album debuting in the top 10 was a huge accomplishment for game music in the U.S. and many nationwide media outlets such as Variety, Rolling Stone magazine, CNN, FOX News, etc. reported about it.  It was also the most distributed video game album to date.  From Brazil to Taiwan, France to Japan, Mexico to Korea… it is everywhere.  And not just as an import, but as a translated product manufactured abroad.

X: Is there any snobbery or pre-conceptions from ‘traditional’ fans of classical music when it comes to your concerts, likewise, do you feel that video game fans are turned off by the classical nature of the show?

TT: We don’t want to be considered a ‘traditional’ or ‘classical’ concert. From our perspective, we feel that the reality is that more traditional and ‘classical’ type of concerts are very difficult to attract a mainstream and mass market audience.  I believe that a lot of the traditional type of concerts will appeal greatly to the hardcore fans… and that’s great.  But that’s not our goal.  We don’t want to appeal to just hardcore gamers or symphony folks.  We want EVERYONE to be excited and interested in video game music whether you play games or not… whether you normally go to a symphony… or not.  In order to accomplish this successfully you need to appeal to people from more than just a symphony or aural standpoint.  Things like Cirque de Soleil for example isn’t just about the music.  It’s a combination of fantastic visuals, incredible music, amazing presentation, interactivity with the audience, etc.  These are things that make it so appealing to a wider worldwide market.

Creating a unique show and presentation that reaches a wider audience of non-gamers is a huge factor in the success of Video Games Live.  The way we look at it is that there are 3 elements that make up a video game… interactivity/design, art/graphics, and audio/music.  What we have done is taken all of these elements and combined them into a live performance.  Having video screens really allows the non-gamers in the audience to follow along which is very important.  To have synchronised video and dynamic lighting as part of our live presentation makes it even that much more unique and spectacular… especially to the non-gaming members of the audience.

We like to think that Video Games Live is definitely a complete show experience and celebration of the video game industry.  It’s not just a bunch of classically trained musicians on stage playing game music, we wanted it to be so much more than that.  And although music is definitely the main focus of the event, we feel that by putting on a sensational show that can be enjoyed by everyone, it is helping to legitimize the gaming world to those people who may not be aware of how amazing it has become.

X: Are Guitar Hero and other rhythm action games ruining todays music industry as Bill Wyman and Chad Kroeger have insinuated, or do games like these encourage an interest in music?

TT: Not at all.  They are absolutely a very positive thing and the amazing increase of music instrument sales (especially guitars) over the past couple of years is further proof of that.  Hundreds of people have come up to me after our show and said that because of Guitar Hero or Rock Band that they went out and bought a real guitar or bass to start learning the songs for real.  Video Games Live has that same effect on people as well!  As mentioned previously, we’ll get a TON of e-mails and letters after a performance from parents saying that their son or daughter went to one of our shows and the next day they asked if they could start taking violin lessons because they wanted to learn how to play the music from Halo, Final Fantasy, Kingdom Hearts… or whatever.  Music is a powerful thing… and so are video games.  Together they are making a culture impact on the lives of millions of people around the world.

X: Have you ever been tempted (or approached) to work on a music based title in the vein of RockBand, Bit.Trip Beat or Vib Ribbon?

TT: Not really.  Although I do have a Special Thanks in the original Guitar Hero and Guitar Hero II games because I really helped to spread the word about the game (and helped them to get Aerosmith into the second one).  I also introduced Aerosmith to Activision for the Guitar Hero: Aerosmith game.  Steven Tyler is actually my cousin (real name Steven Tallarico!).

X: Last, but by no means least, do you feel there is a difference between the work of a composer who has started out in the games industry, and a composer that moves into the industry, when it comes to providing soundtracks to interactive entertainment?

TT: Composing for video games is very unique and although similar to film & television, is still very different.  First of all, in film and television, music is considered background music, or ‘incidental’ music.  It’s considered background music because the medium of film and television is all about storytellig. It’s all about people talking to each other. So maybe a couple times during a film, you’ll get your chase scene, or maybe the big opening or credits at the end where the music is the feature.  But for the most part, the music is background music.  In video games I like to refer to it as foreground music. Because in a video game, it’s not dialogue that drives everything. It’s action and interactivity. Which means the music is always out front. The music — and the audio in general — is the thing that drives the medium.

It is our job as composers and sound designers to put the player in an emotional state of mind as he starts the level. That’s awesome for a composer. I’ll give you another restriction: Even the great John Williams has to sit down with George Lucas at some point, and George says, ‘Okay, at one minute, the music has to do this, because Darth Vader walks through the door. Then at 1:45, it has to do this, because the Death Star blows up.’ So when John Williams is creating music for Star Wars, he is completely boxed in to exactly what that linear piece of media is doing. Whereas with a video game composer, the designer will come to me and say, ‘Okay, we have 100 guys on horseback, with swords, all coming to attack you. Write me a three minute piece of music!’  Now I can just dream up whatever I wish and I might see storyboards, or play the game, and then I can sit there and just create without the restrictions of the linear media.  You also need to think about the interactive elements in a video game.  So although that first scene may have 100 people attacking you, you may also need to create a score that works or can easily branch off to the next piece of music for when only 10 people are attacking… or 1 or none.  A lot of times we’ll write and record the same song 4 or 5 different ways in order to accomplish this.

And it’s for all of these reasons that I’ve always said that if Beethoven were alive today… he’d probably be a video game composer!  He wouldn’t be a film composer. He wouldn’t want people talking over his music! He wouldn’t want to be constrained by exactly what the producer needed for that scene. He was all about putting somebody in an emotional state of mind which is exactly what we do in video game music, without all the dialogue and constraints.

For more information on Video Games Live, visit www.videogameslive.com

3 Responses to “MLG Meets: Tommy Tallarico”
  1. Good interview. I would love to go to VGL at some point. Was meant to go to the Dundee event back in November but my plans didn’t materialise. It would be a good event for an MLG outing :)

  2. I’ve already had a nose and its coming to London later this year….. I seriously feel an MLG outing right there

  3. avatar Martyn Hackett says:

    Excellent interview Xero, well done landing that one!

    Third vote for the MLG outing right here.

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