Canadian Online Gamers gets Tommy to sit down and address some questions about Video Games Live, his inspiration for what he does, and he gives a bit of advice for those looking to get into the world of Video Game Music or Sound.
COG: How did you interest in the world of gaming music begin?
Tommy Tallarico: When I was around 9 or 10 years old, I would take my dad’s cassette deck and go down to the local arcades and pizza parlors to record all my favorite video game sounds and music. Then I would come home and record my favorite music from my Apple II, Commodore 64, Atari 2600, Intellivision, etc. I would splice the tape together and invite my neighborhood friends over. I would charge them 5 cents while I played back the cassette and jumped up in front of the television with my favorite video games on in the background and would grab my guitar and play along with the cassette. I guess those were some of the first video game concerts… circa 1977! J It’s such a dream come true for me to be doing it 30 years later on stages like the Hollywood Bowl with 150 musicians and tens of thousands of people in the audience.
So my two greatest loves and passions growing up were always video games and music, but I never really thought to ever put the two together as a career until I moved out to California when I was 21 years old. I just got in my car and I drove out west, left my parents crying on the doorstep. I didn’t have a job, money, I had no friends, no place to stay, nothing. I was actually homeless and sleeping under a pier. I just drove to California and the first day I got there I drove to Orange County because the only thing I really knew out there was Disneyland. When I got there I picked up a newspaper and saw a job for selling keyboards at Guitar Center. I went down there and they hired me and I started the following day. On my first day at the new job, the first person who walked in the store, happened to be a producer at a video game company called Virgin. I was wearing a TurboGrafx 16 shirt — a video game T-shirt — which, back then, 22 years ago, no one had video game T-shirts. He saw my shirt and he asked if I wanted a job testing games. I was like “Heck yeah!” I was in California for three days and I was in the video game industry. Back then there was no such thing as a video game composer you had to be a programmer to do music and I didn’t really know too much about programming. I was hired as a games tester, and I would literally bug the vice president of the company every day, saying, “Whenever you need music, just let me know. I’ll learn how to do it, and do it for free, and if you don’t like it, you don’t have to use it.” So about three or four months later, one of the first games that I was actually a tester on was Prince Of Persia. I asked him to do the music and he let me. They liked what they heard and made me the full-time music guy after that.
COG: You have a rich and diverse resume of gaming music that you’ve contributed too. What would you consider your biggest inspiration for the types of music you have done in the past?
Tommy Tallarico: For me, it’s all about emotion. I really want to know the emotions of the character. What are they doing? Are they being chased or are they chasing someone? Are we happy, are we sad, are we scared? Are we searching for something? For me, it’s always about the emotion of the scene. Yeah — sometimes I actually play the game. Other times, I’ll only have a screen shot or art from the level because the game isn’t finished yet. It depends. Playing the game is obviously the coolest way to do it. Then I just sit there and wait for stuff to come to my head and figure it out on the piano. Then I’ll put it in the computer, depending on the style of music (like if it’s orchestral) and add the whole orchestra. Once I get it in there, I’ll record it with a live orchestra or live musicians.
COG: Amongst all the games you’ve contributed to, to me Cool Spot has to be one of the strangest as it is based on the 7up soft drink brand. I played it on the Sega Genesis and loved it. Can you think of anything stranger that you have written music for? And if so why was it stranger then a game based on a soft drink logo coming to life?
Tommy Tallarico: Color a Dinosaur! You can read the whole story on my website right HERE
GameTrailers/ScrewAttack did a hilarious review on it recently as well and you can check it out HERE
COG: What is your most memorable soundtrack that you have contributed to and why?
Tommy Tallarico: Earthworm Jim is one of my most favorite game franchises that I’ve worked on because the project was so much fun to be a part of. Although I’ve been very fortunate to have worked on incredible franchises such as Metroid, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, Sonic, Pac-Man, Mortal Kombat, Spider-Man, Twisted Metal, Time Crisis, Madden Football, etc…. Earthworm Jim always holds a special place in my heart.
Our small team of friends had worked together on so many other great products before that (Global Gladiators, Cool Spot, Aladdin), but for EWJ we were just given a timeframe to complete whatever we wanted to. We would come in to work every day and just try to make each other laugh. That was pretty much the game design for the entire project and I think you can really feel that in the final product. There weren’t really any rules. As long as it was funny, it was good. That’s why musically the game is all over the place. From rock to classical to electronic, polka, ragtime, banjo, dixie, big band, blues, etc. Whatever I thought was funny or worked I would put it. It didn’t necessarily need to fit an overall style. As long as it was entertaining, it was okay. I wish more games took that kind of overall approach these days.
One memorable experience was when we were coming up with the voice and vocal expressions for Jim. It was myself, Doug TenNaple (creator), David Perry (programmer) and Mike Dietz (artist) all sitting in a room coming up with the most ridiculous phrases we could think of and then just recording it. Things like “Groovy!” and “Wooooaaaaah Nellie!” we just thought would be funny for him to say and we would figure out a place to put them in the game. Giving him a weird southern type accent we thought would be somewhat hilarious as well. Again, we had no rules and no one looking over our shoulders so we just went for it whether it made sense or not. J
COG: What music do you see as currently having impact or influencing gaming music in this current generation of consoles?
Tommy Tallarico: The stuff that the Blizzard folks are doing with the World of Warcraft, Diablo & StarCraft franchises is really incredible. Audio director Russell Brower is an incredible composer and audio director. He assembles a really incredible team of people to create some really special stuff… time and time again. It’s really amazing.
I really love the direction and quality that Rockstar Games puts into its audio as well. Games like Red Dead Redemption & L.A. Noire are absolutely stunning. From every aspect of the audio… from the sound design and voice acting to the music writing and interactivity. Whenever you put a Rockstar Game in you know for sure the audio is going to be incredible. Same can be said about any Blizzard game.
COG: What is the most memorable gaming soundtrack for you personally that you have not been a part of?
Tommy Tallarico: Nobuo Uematsu’s work on Final Fantasy VIII is my favorite game soundtrack of all time. From the incredible opening cinematic song (Liberi Fatali) to amazing pieces like “Eyes On Me”… everything about that score was phenomenal in my opinion.
COG: What do you say to people who think that sound and/or music are not that important in the overall scope of a game experience?
Tommy Tallarico: Attend a Video Games Live show and your mind will quickly be changed! :-)
COG: Shifting gears, how did you come up with the idea for Video Games Live? What was the driving force for you to make this “Concert Series” come alive?
Tommy Tallarico: I’ve been a video game composer for over 22 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.
To describe Video Games Live quickly: it’s all the greatest video game music of all time played by a full symphony and choir onstage. But what makes it really unique is that everything is completely synchronised – the music is synchronised with the big video screen and the rock n’ roll lighting and the stage show production, special fx and interactive crowd elements. It’s all the power and emotion of a symphony orchestra combined with the energy and excitement of a rock concert mixed together with interactivity, cutting edge visuals, technology and fun that video games provide.
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.
COG: Given that the Video Games Live has been around for six years now (hey I am lousy at math so I could be wrong), do you consider it the success you were hoping for or is there even more that you want to do with it?
Tommy Tallarico: We actually started it over 10 years ago and have been touring for over 7! It can always get bigger and the show is always changing. I’ll do this for as long as people still want to see it. Every year we add new material and put on a new show. We do about 50 shows a year all over the world. It’s a dream come true and there are still places we haven’t even played yet and countries we haven’t visited. The great thing about the show and the format however is that there is so much fantastic video game music out there that the possibilities are endless! Just this year we added music from Skyrim, Diablo III, World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria, Journey, Earthworm Jim, Super Smash Bros. Brawl, more stuff from Final Fantasy VI & VII and are currently working on others like Katamari Damacy, Phoenix Wright and so much more. We’ve now created over 100 segments for Video Games Live but can only perform about 18 of them a night. So we could literally go back to the same place for the next 5 or 6 years and it would always be a new show! Which is what we’ve done in places like Los Angeles, Brazil, etc.
COG: How do you narrow down your play list for each tour year? There is so much good gaming music over the years that it must be hard for you to narrow it down.
Tommy Tallarico: It’s tough for sure. Lately I’ve just been asking people on our Facebook page to tell us what they want to hear. Each show has its own EVENTS page. So if you’re interested in hearing something… please let us know and it will probably wind up in the show! Our official Facebook page is: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Video-Games-Live/62865898389
COG: Given that there are other forms of gaming music concerts (e.g. Symphony of the Goddesses and Symphony of Legends come to mind), how does it feel to think that many gamers see Video Games Live as the premiere gaming music concert? Did you ever envision it becoming so popular? Did you ever think that your concert series would be a ‘trend setter’ so to speak?
Tommy Tallarico: I think it’s great that so many other concerts have taken our lead. We certainly weren’t the first video game concert… they’ve been doing game music concerts in Japan since the late 80’s! (Dragon Quest). But Video Games Live was the first to tour and the first to synchronize video. We’re very different and unique to the concerts that have come before and after us in one big regard… we’re more of a “show” than just a traditional symphonic concert. I think this is the reason why we’ve been so successful and continuing performing 50 shows a year. What really makes VGL 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.
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. There are 3 elements that make up a video game… interactivity/design, art/graphics, and audio/music. We’ve taken all of these elements and combined them into a live performance. Having a video screen really allows the non-gamers in the audience to follow along which is very important. Is the music good enough to stand on its own? I believe it is, especially when you see things like the “Video Games Live” album debuting at #8 on the Billboard charts, but to have the other stuff and to have it be a complete celebration of the entire industry makes it even that much more unique and spectacular… especially to the non-gaming members of the audience.
COG: If you had to choose one dream location that has not hosted a Video Games Live concert, where would that be and why?
Tommy Tallarico: We’ve been trying to get to Australia for more than a few years now. Playing the Sydney Opera House would be pretty damn awesome!
COG: Switching gears for one last time, given we are from the Vancouver area, home of Greedy Productions (Reviews on the Run, EP, etc), do you miss those days of doing reviews for all those games out there? Have you ever had the ‘itch’ to come back to do more of these types of reviews with your old ‘partner in crime’ Victor Lucas?
Tommy Tallarico: Yeah! For sure! When I left a few years ago it was because my Video Games Live schedule was getting so crazy that I just couldn’t film 2 weekly television shows any more. A lot of time, thought and energy went into making them with a highly creative team of folks. But it just got to be too much. I keep bugging Vic to let me come back and do some guest appearances but I think he’s trying to establish some of the other hosts. I think everyone reading this should get on his Facebook & Twitter and DEMAND that he puts me back on every once in awhile! J
COG: Finally, can you offer for advice to anyone out there that maybe thinking about trying to make a career producing, creating or writing music for games?
Tommy Tallarico: If you want to get into video games, there are three or four things you can do that will get you in, if you have the talent. But the biggest advice I have to give to everyone before I get to those four things is that talent isn’t everything in this industry. Talent is 50 percent of it; the other 50 percent is networking and being able to sell yourself. If all the people out there spent as much time working on the networking as they did on the talent aspect, they’d go a lot further.
People are afraid to say that sometimes. They want you to think that it’s all about your talent and composing skills. The four things I have to say all have to do with networking and not the talent side.
How do you get into the video-game industry? The first thing is to join the Game Audio Network Guild (G.A.N.G.), G.A.N.G. is an organization run by everyone and it’s for everyone; it’s a non-profit organization started to give information and share resources among professionals and other people interested in doing audio for video games. www.audiogang.org.
The second thing I’d recommend is to go to the Game Developers Conference (www.gdconf.com). GDC is the best place to meet producers, designers, and other audio people, of course, and to learn from the masters who are doing game audio already. It’s not just technical; [it gives you] information about business and the creative aspect and marketing yourself, as well as having a huge job fair where all of the developers and publishers looking for people are sitting right there.
The third thing is to join the IGDA, the International Game Developers Association (www.idga.org). That’s also a non-profit organization, and they have a ton of local chapters all over the world. If you’re just looking to get into the industry, there are a lot of other people just like you but who are programmers, artists, or smaller developers.
The great thing about the industry right now is that you don’t have to get hired to work on a big $20 million-budget project. You can get in the game industry by working on somebody’s cell-phone or i-Phone game that has a $50,000 budget.
The fourth thing is to read. There are a couple of great books out there. There’s The Complete Guide to Game Audio by Aaron Marks, and the other great one is from Alexander Brandon and is called Audio for Games: Planning, Process, and Production. These are two fantastic books that give you great insight on the “how” aspect of making audio for games.
We here at COG would like to thank Tommy for taking the time out of his busy schedule to answer these questions. We found he has a lot of incite into the industry and his many years demonstrate that he is good at what he does. We for one can’t wait for Video Games Live to hit Vancouver later this year as it’s always a great time.