Tom Salta on Creating Award-Winning Video Game Scores with UAD Plug-Ins
When you write music for video games, you don’t just create a linear score, like you would for a movie,” says renowned game composer Tom Salta. “You often have to think, and work, in layers, and compose to possibility. Salta’s expertise at creating such fluid and multi-tendriled sonic magic has taken him to the top of his field. His game credits include Halo: Spartan Assault — which just won GANG’s (Game Audio Network Guild) Best Original Soundtrack award — multiple Tom Clancy Ghost Recon titles, Prince of Persia The Forgotten Sands, and many more. No stranger to the studio before getting into games in the early 2000s, Salta has also amassed significant production, programming, and songwriting credits with artists like Sinead O’Connor, Cher, Peter Gabriel, and Whitney Houston.
Here’s what Salta had to say about his path into the game-scoring stratosphere, the unique challenges of composing for the format, and the equally unique strengths that UAD Powered Plug-Ins bring to his creative process.
What exactly does it mean to compose in layers?
Let’s say your character is walking into a room and there’s a basic tension layer of music playing as you explore. Suddenly, a creature pops out and a second musical layer kicks in on top to increase the intensity. Then your character opens a door and gets swarmed by fifty zombies, cueing a third layer to kick in — and that third layer has to mesh with the first two that are already playing. When you’re scoring a game, you really have to plan, compose, and organize your music to fit any path the gameplay might take.
How did you become aware of the gaming industry?
Back in 2001, I had already been in the music business for 15 years and was getting the sense that the business was changing in a way that I didn’t feel was favorable. I was looking for a new area in music that inspired me. That's right around when Halo came out. I've been a huge video game fanatic since I was a young kid, but never before had I considered merging my two loves of music and video games into a profession.
Halo changed everything for me. In that game, I started hearing how the music was beginning to evolve away from the bleeps and bloops that were typical of Nintendo-style games into a more Western sound. I started getting excited and decided to go full-speed-ahead into the game industry.
How did you do that?
First, I had to re-establish myself, since I had no credits in video games. Even though I had plenty of credits on records, that sort of experience wasn’t going to get me the attention I needed.
I came up with the idea to create an artist moniker, Atlas Plug, and I made an album called 2 Days or Die. It was electronica that was perfectly suited for licensing in video games, T.V. and film. Before the album was even done, my publisher got a call from Microsoft to license four songs in a new game called Rallisport Challenge 2. That's where it all began.
I started getting heavy licensing requests on that album and it took off. Slowly but surely, a few years later, I started getting opportunities to work on original scores. One of the first big ones was Need for Speed Underground 2 and the Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighters series. Those projects put me on the map and helped me establish my unique, hybrid orchestral sound.
You’ve worked on the Halo franchise since then.
In 2011, I was fortunate to be asked by Microsoft to help recreate the score of the original Halo: Combat Evolved. That was a dream come true. Fast-forward two years and I was also asked to create an original score for a brand new Halo game, Halo: Spartan Assault. It was an incredibly rewarding, exciting, and challenging project.
When you’re working on game scores, what are some of your most-used plug-ins?
I love both the Sonnox Oxford Inflator and the Precision Maximizer. I toggle back and forth between them because they have different kinds of sounds, and they add energy in a way that helps things feel louder and thicker. The Sonnox is little noisier than the Maximizer, and I mean “noisy” in a good way. Most often I use them on submixes, or on a cue’s final mixdown.
Another one I enjoy using is the UAD Manley Massive Passive EQ. It adds extra high end and upper mid level frequencies and is a wonderful shaping tool. In fact, it’s so smooth that you have to be careful not to use too much of it.
Why is that a problem?
All it takes is a very delicate touch to make a big difference, and if you use too much, it can sneak up on you and you end up with a sound that’s too exaggerated and unnatural. I find that the Massive Passive works best with subtle tweaks and extra sweetening. Generally speaking, I try to avoid mastering my own mixes — but I can still get away with using the Massive Passive to add an extra special something before passing the mixes off.
Do you have any favorite plug-ins for tweaking individual instruments?
One of my current go-to favorites is the API Vision Channel Strip. It has pretty much everything you need in a channel strip and sounds amazing. It’s like API’s Swiss army knife. Another old reliable for me is the Neve® 1073 / 1073SE Classic Console EQ plug-in. UA did an impeccable job of making it sound exactly like the hardware. I use it for so many things. Sometimes adding a little extra shaping to a bass or rolling off some lows. If I add a little high-end to vocals or guitar, it gives it some wonderful extra edge. That’s one of those tried-and-true plug-ins that almost every engineer has on hand.
That’s what I love about vintage, class-A hardware like the original 1073 — you instantly know, musically speaking, whether or not it’s going to work. There aren’t a million different nuances and settings to get lost in. It’s a matter of “yes or no and on to the next.” And that’s one of the many things I like about UAD plug-ins.
What are your favorite reverbs?
The Lexicon® 224 Digital Reverb is one of those vintage reverbs that sounds beautiful on the right material. You get that classic sound, and the fact that you can turn the noise on and off is amazing. I also love how flexible it is, how you can quickly tune it to be exactly what you’re looking for with just a few knobs and faders. I use it all the time both for huge, long reverbs and short, immediate plates and gates. It’s been around for a long time and I’ve only started using it regularly in the last year, but it’s one of my latest favorite UAD plug-ins.
“Halo: Spartan Assault is a UAD showcase," says Salta. "The entire score was recorded through, mixed, and mastered exclusively with UAD plug-ins and an Apollo QUAD.”
What about UA hardware?
I used the Apollo QUAD on Halo: Spartan Assault. That project was like a UAD showcase — the score was recorded through, mixed, and mastered exclusively with UAD plug-ins and hardware. The choirs were all live and I recorded them through the Apollo. Then I mixed the whole thing in the box using UAD plug-ins.
As I said before, I always prefer handing off my projects to a great mastering engineer — but in this case, I was asked to master the soundtrack. I used the Shadow Hills Mastering Compressor plug-in for the first time and it saved my life. Between the Shadow Hills and Massive Passive, and sometimes even the Sonnox Oxford if I wanted to get surgical, I got it done. Plus, I almost never run a mix without the Precision Limiter. That’s the final element in my chain. The irony is, Halo: Spartan Assault is the first soundtrack I’ve done that won the G.A.N.G. award for Best Original Soundtrack, so who knows — maybe UAD has given me a career in mastering!
Have you had any happy accidents involving UA gear?
I like loading compressors, like the FATSO™ Jr./Sr. Tape Sim. & Compressor or the Fairchild 670 from the Fairchild Tube Limiter Plug-In Collection. You could do that with vintage hardware — the compressors would sound fantastic when you pushed them beyond their limits to see what kinds of sounds and tones you could get. The same sort of experimentation works well with a lot of the UAD plug-ins. You can push them beyond their limits and get some interesting, fantastic-sounding results.
How did your work in the mainstream music world prepare you for your current gig?
Those fifteen years leading up to my entering the game industry were quite a winding road, almost like Forrest Gump [Laughs]! I worked on everything from jazz to classical to hip-hop to pop to dance remixes. I worked with Junior Vasquez in the mid-’90s and before that, I was on tour with Bobby Brown, working as sound designer and keyboard tech.
I also love writing songs and worked with developing artists in pop music, R&B, and more. Those experiences gave me a huge education on how to create a finished product, from the initial writing to the production to the final mix. It also taught me how to get a unique sound for each project. When I was only allowed to use certain kinds of instruments with an artist or stay within a certain style, I felt restricted — but I also learned how to focus on creating something unique and identifiable within those restrictions. That set of skills served me very well when I got into games. With every project I score, my first priority is to create a signature sound.
Why is that important?
These days, there are so many people creating so much music using the same tools. After a while, it all starts to sounds the same. That's a trap that I make a huge effort to avoid. It takes a lot more work, time, and experimentation, but it's critical, and it’s one of the things that I bring to the projects that I work on.
How many minutes of music do you need to create for a Halo game, and how long does it take you to compose?
In Halo: Spartan Assault, we have over an hour of music and I worked on it over the course of a few months. When you’re dealing with films, you usually have a window of six weeks, a month, or less, in which to do the entire film and that’s it. With games, you usually get more time.
Can you talk more about the differences between film and game scoring?
When you’re writing linear music for films, you have a beginning, middle, and end. But with video games, everything is “modular.” I like to refer to it as musical Lego blocks. A cue can have one beginning, five different middles, and six different endings that can all switch back and forth. When you’re scoring, you have to think about all of the possibilities.
How do you handle that?
I often create flow charts, or at least think that way, so that I can smoothly transition from one single cue to a bunch of other cues and anticipate elements like BPM, keys, modulations, instrumentation, and how the transitions between cues will sound.
Do you see the finished game before you create the music?
Unless it’s a cutscene, I'm not writing music exactly to a scene. If I'm lucky, I'll get some game-play footage and will create music to evoke a certain mood or emotion that I want the player to feel as he or she is going through the level. That is a lot different than creating a score that plays to exactly what the person is doing on the screen at that exact moment. I'm scoring the emotion of playing the game instead. It's a much different way of thinking than working on film music. I could be asked to write a five-minute cue that could play for a half-hour, so I have to be sure to write music that can stand up to that much repeated listening. In particular, I have to be careful not to over-use melodies.
What was the most iconic game soundtrack that you’ve heard — and that you didn’t write?
[Laughs.] That’s a hard one. It’s difficult for me to separate the score from the game because they work hand-in-hand. That said, the original Halo was huge for me. That was one of the most iconic scores and games that I had ever played. Another of my favorites is Zelda: The Ocarina of Time. I still love it. The music was MIDI-based and wasn’t huge and orchestral, but it still got into your head. Everything about that game was executed so incredibly well. As far as modern scores, there are so many. I couldn’t even begin to answer.
What advice could you offer to aspiring game composers out there?
Play games! Composers need to fully understand the way that music is used in a game project. And if you don't have the time to play extensively, at least go on YouTube and do your research by watching videos of different types of games.
Like anything else in the entertainment business, aspiring game composers need to network and know where to network. In the game industry, the place to be is the Game Developers Conference (GDC) in San Francisco. Everybody’s there, and being immersed in the industry for a full week is hugely educational. They should also join The Game Audio Network Guild (G.A.N.G.) as it’s an amazing world-wide community of game audio people, composers, sound designers, voice over actors, and audio directors.
There are also a lot of books out now. When I started, there wasn’t any real documentation on composing for games, but if you go to Amazon and search for "game audio," you’ll find tons of material to learn from.
Finally — write, experiment, learn the vocabulary, and dive in! Planning out all of the elements and layers of a game score takes practice. It’s not something you can just sit down and do well. Invest the time to know what you’re doing, take risks, and have fun.