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An excellent
soundtrack has the ability to take an already great gaming experience
to the next level. This was certainly the case with Torchlight, which
was developed by Runic Games and features music by industry legend Matt
Uelmen. Like many PC gamers in the late 90s, I spent many, many all
night gaming sessions clicking my way through the genre defining Diablo
series, and still consider them to be some of the best PC games out
there to this day. Ever since, much of the music from those soundtracks
has had a permanent place on my iPod, and I’m sure
I’m not alone in considering Matt’s compositions to
be some of the best in gaming, both past and present.

Ten Ton Hammer recently had the opportunity to sit down and talk with
Matt about composing music for video games, the differences between
composing for a single player title vs. an MMOG, some of his musical
influences, and even some advice for aspiring musicians looking to make
a career in the video game industry. So dial up your favorite tunes
(the town theme from Torchlight has become a personal favorite) sit
back and enjoy our exclusive interview with one of the biggest
names in
video game soundtracks.


The Diablo
Town theme
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Diablo
- 1997


The Diablo soundtrack evokes
fond memories of many, many late night dungeon crawls for PC gamers

Ten
Ton Hammer
: What initially
inspired you to pursue a career with music
in the video game industry?

Matt Uelmen:
I think my original motivation was just to try to make a
living with music, and I think I saw that the video game industry had a
lot of potential and was going to attract a lot of talent in the near
future. But it’s one of those things where I kind of went
into it with a mercenary attitude but within a year I found that the
genre itself was really interesting.

I’m not the most influenced by a lot of the Japanese stuff,
but I remember being very impressed by Y?z? Koshiro’s
Streets
of Rage
soundtrack and thinking
that there really is a lot of artistry
to it if you do it right. In terms of the pacing and in terms of
supporting action and things like that, it really is as intellectually
interesting as anything else you can have as a career in music.

I think that my early experiences really made me feel less of a
mercenary and just generally love the games medium.

Ten
Ton Hammer
: You have one of the
more distinctive musical styles in the industry
where a lot of your compositions are instantly recognizable as being
something you’ve created, while still remaining
wholly unique to a specific game or setting.  Is that
something that you
intentionally set out to achieve early on, or has that been more of an
organic
process over the years?

Matt Uelmen:
I think a lot of the stuff I do just seems to me to be the
logical way to approach the fantasy genre. So for me
it sometimes seems
strange if it isn’t just assumed that other people would want
to do the big mandolin triads with the reverb on. A lot of it is
stylistic choices that I make. To me they seem just the way that I
would want to have something based in a Tolkien-like universe if
it’s a logical soundtrack for it.

It seems so logical and natural for me to just stack up the 12 strings
and mandolins in the fantasy genre because it’s a really
comforting sound yet it’s also creepy in the right ways.
It’s also different enough from the normal musical syntax
that you get in rock or classical music, both of which kind of ignore
that. I try to put a country flavoring in things too that I think a lot
of composers don’t necessarily think of, or at least they
don’t think of it first in terms of the fantasy genre.

I listen to a lot of artists like Hank Williams Sr. and Patsy Cline and
have always loved that kind of instrumentation, and for me
it’s a really natural thing to want to use that color.
Naturally the whole concept has always just been the Appalachian folk
stuff kind of dressed up and going for a night on the town. So
it’s a real natural bridge to take more of those Appalachian
and folky flavors and use some of the colors that modern country would
use like pedal steel or the telecaster.

Or even if I’m lucky enough to have real fiddles
I’d rather have the more classical sound, and
that’s kind of a differentiation there. But that’s
all cosmetic; I’m sure there are a lot of great country
violinists that can play classical very well and vice versa.

Ten
Ton Hammer
: In the
past you’ve cited some of the more often overlooked
inspirations for creating a specific style of music such as Led
Zeppelin vs. some of the more standard or familiar sweeping orchestral
arrangements commonly associated with the fantasy genre.

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Torchlight
- 2009


The Torchlight soundtrack
contains some of the best music in video
games from recent years

Matt Uelmen:
I really see just about all of the fantasy world where
it’s so rare to get away from the Wagner and the Tolkien
archetypes. Any kind of flavor you can get from that is nice, but I
think it is important to find more modern fantasy influences than that
if you can. Definitely the way that Led Zeppelin would use a more
renaissance fair type of sound in their folky stuff, it has a kind of
resonance with the fantasy genre in terms of just that kind of mandolin
heavy thing. I mean, they were definitely the best at doing that kind
of sound in that era.

And that’s really kind of the charm of just the culture that
comes from the Appalachians here. The reason it sounds interesting to
us is because there’s an element of it that’s
totally missed out on over
the past two centuries. That’s kind of
why it has this authentic resonance with this kind of historical memory
that we have. It’s from a culture that never really had
modern life in some ways. That’s a specific part of the
history of American music though, in terms of so much of it coming from
remote places in the hills there and so much of it coming from cotton
country and the delta.

Ten Ton Hammer:
There
are definitely elements of each of those things
blended together in the href="http://www.tentonhammer.com/taxonomy/term/2036">Torchlight
soundtrack that when combined with
more of the ambient textures really helps create something very unique
that works exceptionally well for the game’s setting.

Matt Uelmen:
I used a lot of similar arrangement ideas obviously in the
town pieces, but they do sound totally different when you sit down at a
piano and actually play them. In one way I was kind of surprised that
more people didn’t notice that, as I had never put a big
goofy melody up front in the Diablo
universe in the way that I did
about 40 or 50 seconds into the Torchlight
town theme. But I was happy
with how Torchlight
turned out in just about every way. It’s
been a really fun team to work with.



The Torchlight
Town theme
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World
of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade - 2007


Matt's compositions for the
Outlands zone themes gave TBC the perfect atmospheric backdrop

Ten
Ton Hammer
: Overall, what role
do you feel audio plays in modern
gaming?

Matt Uelmen:
I think it completely and totally depends on the game,
because you really don’t want to hear music when
you’re playing Madden, and the Madden and the FIFA world are
a dominant part of gaming. So it really depends on what the title calls
for. Sometimes you want a more atmospheric thing that isn’t
as melodic and in your face and that’s just as musically
valid as some kind of sweeping romantic fantasy thing.

So it really depends on the title. Sometimes audio just has to kind of
get out of the way and not be noticeable in terms of U.I. design where
that’s probably always the case. So it really varies genre to
genre.

Ten Ton Hammer:
Along with that then, what kind of challenges do you
face as a composer when working on a soundtrack in terms of wanting to
create something distinctive and fits the theme for that specific game,
yet ambient enough that it doesn’t overpower what’s
happening visually on the screen?

Matt Uelmen:
I’m kind of the wrong person to ask just because
almost all of my work in the past has been more or less in the fantasy
genre. So it’s hard for me to depart from the core elements
of that as much as I’d like sometimes. So I really have to
follow the queue of that genre, so it’s really more a matter
of thinking about what will I do that departs from that formula I
think. So that’s the most interesting part.

Then a lot of it is just the logistics in terms of, for
example I'm really hoping to do some live elements on the
title that I'm working on now, so I'm really
thinking more about getting my skills there sharp again because I
haven't really written orchestral charts in a few years. That
has more to do just with the actual resources I'll be lucky
enough to have recording-wise, and that has a lot to do with the
particular content we need.

Ten
Ton
Hammer
: How closely do you
typically work with the rest of the
development team during the creation of a new title?

Matt Uelmen:
Torchlight
was an unusual project in that I was working on
stuff besides music, so my calendar was pretty full and music was more
of something that I had to get done in a certain space of time, in a
way that was definitely much more time challenging than my experience
with Blizzard. So obviously that was very different.

Working on that stuff I definitely had to keep
an eye on implementation. I was really lucky in that the team I was
working with was very, very flexible and really willing to pick up a
lot of my slack in terms of not being able to do as much direct
implementation as I probably should have. I think a lot of the success
of that team has just been because people have been willing to go
outside of their normal roles to help other people get stuff done.

Ten Ton Hammer:
With a smaller development team I’d
imagine that kind of thing is almost critical.

Matt Uelmen:
It's definitely nice to feel like
you're on a real first name basis with everyone you need to
work with to get the job done. I think it gives the game a more
personal feel. It’s definitely harder to deliver as much
content and make sure it’s all totally balanced etc.
That’s the hard part about having a small team. You
can’t just have dozens of people giving it another couple
months of polish at the end. But you know, there are good and bad sides
to everything.

Ten Ton Hammer:
Do you get to work somewhat autonomously when
you’re coming up with the main musical concepts that go into
a game, or is that something that’s discussed early on with
the other members of the development team?

Matt Uelmen:
I’d say I’m fairly autonomous,
although I definitely want to talk with a lot of the principles on the
game about how we want to approach things like the first town in this
title. I think that will always be the case in that I’ll
definitely want to make sure that everybody likes the really important
stuff like the opening title screen, the opening town, a few of the
opening action scenes, the first boss fight. I think no matter how
independent you are – whether you’re working on
modeling or animation or music – in any case you want to make
sure your decisions have a consensus behind them in terms of the
approach that you’re taking. You always want to make sure
that people don’t think you’re flying off the deep
end.

Ten Ton Hammer:
What are some of the main differences between working
on a single player title like Torchlight
and working on compositions
for an MMOG, such as the Outland themes you created for The
Burning
Crusade
?

Matt Uelmen:
It definitely calls for a very, very different style of
music and a very different approach. I think I put in just about maybe
8 times the music in the stuff I worked on for href="http://www.tentonhammer.com/wow">World
of Warcraft

just
going by the clock, than I did for Torchlight.
But that really makes
sense in terms of what you need for a game like Torchlight
is a very
strong opening that’s 6 or 7 minutes or maybe even 8 or 9
minutes, and then maybe not as strong but a very distinctive 25 minutes
beyond that. Whereas with an MMO I think you really need to design for
really, really long play sessions. So there it’s really more
about having a solid 15 minute experience for every zone, but being
very gentle in your transitions in and out of the content just to give
that illusion of it being more like a half hour.

So it’s much different. Just creating a nice fun, tight five
minutes for a level is a lot different than approaching an entire zone
in an MMO, or at least it was in my opinion. That’s also a
product of the WoW sound design which has the silence in between tunes
as a default based off of design decisions they made almost 10 years
ago.

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Diablo
II - 2000


The Diablo II soundtrack
allowed Matt to draw upon the same style of hauntingly beautiful
soundscapes that made the original such a memorable experience

Ten Ton Hammer:
Now that
the Torchlight
single player campaign has had
its successful launch, will you also be composing the music for the
MMOG being developed in that same setting?

Matt Uelmen:
I can’t really talk about what little I know
about what we’re releasing when, but I am working on new
material with Runic and I’m really excited about that. It
really helps to be able to do some live stuff this time.
They’re definitely making a lot of progress on things up in
Seattle right now, and I’m pretty confident that people will
enjoy whatever it is, whenever it is. And that team is incapable of not
going blisteringly fast so I don’t think it’ll be
too long of a wait before more content gets out there.

Ten Ton Hammer:
No doubt – Torchlight
came out after a pretty
fast production cycle.

Matt Uelmen:
*laughter* Yeah, you could say that. I think that entire
development cycle was really more like eight and a half months for me.
That was definitely a different experience than I’ve had in a
little while.

Ten Ton Hammer:
As a composer, do you enjoy getting to revisit or even
reimaging the sounds or musical themes you’ve created for a
unique setting like you did with the Diablo
games and potentially
within the Torchlight
setting as well?

Matt Uelmen:
I honestly don’t know if we’re doing
any kind of narrative thing where you visit places you’ve
been before or there are characters that you’ve used before.
Obviously we’re still at the phase where we’re
ironing out those kinds of story elements. That said, it is fun being
self referential, but it can also be a creative trap if you do it too
often.

I think the experience that I had – I honestly
haven’t put that much thought into it; if I do want to do as
much thematic stuff in the Torchlight
universe if we choose to develop
in that as I with the Diablo
universe. It is fun when you do have a
chance to do a real structure with the strong lead melodies. Torchlight
had a couple of themes that I may want to use but if we do work in that
world again, but we’ll see. It’s hard for me to
really compare my experience working on the Diablo
series with other
stuff just because my experience of working on that was so unique, and
the experience with that team was as well.



The World
of Warcraft
Mag'har theme
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StarCraft
- 1998


The success of Diablo found
Matt becoming involved in the sound design for the original StarCraft

Ten
Ton Hammer
: Do you typically
work out of a home studio, or is that
somewhat project dependant in terms of where you’re putting
together the main compositions for a specific game?

Matt Uelmen:
Right now I’m intentionally living somewhere
where I have decent studio space. I would say that’s pretty
important to actually being productive when I need to be. But again,
every project has been a little bit different. I guess I’ve
been spoiled in that I’m used to having a decent office space.

One of the nice things about the greater Las Angeles area is that they
do have some kind of outdoor small garage spaces in a lot of the houses
here so that makes it kind of convenient in terms of working on music.

Ten Ton Hammer:
We’re also at a point now where musicians can
set up a home studio relatively inexpensively to get something started,
and there are a lot of really good tools and sound libraries available.

Matt Uelmen:
That’s very, very true. Compared to starting a
studio up 15 or 20 years ago you can more or less work with the same
tools that everybody has and keep it in the four digit range. That
definitely wasn’t true back then.

Ten Ton Hammer:
You’ve done work both as a composer as well
as a sound designer. Could you give maybe a brief overview of what the
differences are between the two in terms of the type of work involved
as a musician?

Matt Uelmen:
I think it was really good for me to go back to doing a
little bit of that kind of work on this project. I think you can
actually get music work and sound design work done in the exact same
environment with no problem. I think a lot of composers see sound
design as something that they do kind of as grunt work whereas
they’d much rather spend all of their time on music. But even
if that is the case – that definitely has been me for much of
my career – I think it’s undeniable that you learn
a lot about trying to make a 600 or 700 millisecond thing as good as it
possibly can be.

I think it gives you a sense of discipline. I don’t know if I
ever really would have learned how to use EQ in a decent way if I
didn’t have the discipline of going up, stumbling through it
doing sound design work. It definitely gives you a more objective way
of looking at music, and that can really help.

Ten Ton Hammer:
It seems like you’d even have to approach it
with somewhat of a different mindset, where you’re trying to
create more of an atmosphere with the music vs. working on something
like the audio component of a spell effect.

Matt Uelmen:
Right, and I think it’s also good to work on it
early in your career insofar as it gives you a chance to feel really
confident and happy with something that’s just a second or
two long. If you can really build on that then it’s a lot
easier to be more confident in terms of doing compositional stuff.

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World
of Warcraft: Mosaic Soundtrack


Given to attendees of BlizzCon
2009, Mosaic features 2 of Matt's compositions that didn't make it onto
previous WoW soundtracks

Ten Ton Hammer:
That said, do you have any advice you might like to
give our readers who are considering pursuing a career in composition
and sound design in the gaming industry?

Matt Uelmen:
That’s a tough one; I probably have an entire
book I could say. I’m not a very good writer though so
I’m not sure that book will be coming out anytime soon.

*laughter*

I would say that the important thing is just to get as much material
out there as you can. Don’t be afraid to be part of a team,
and see yourself as that first and foremost. Game development is really
a team sport, and if you’re lucky enough you can be someone
with an unexceptional talent like myself and find yourself on
absolutely amazing projects that will make a career in music possible.

Try to keep an eye on the upcoming talent that you see around you that
will be leading interesting teams in the future. If you can do that
well that’s probably much more important than writing music
well or having a gift for mixing sound effects.

Ten Ton Hammer:
Was there anything else you might like to add about
either your personal career or even music’s role in the
gaming industry in general?

Matt Uelmen:
It’s hard for me to overemphasize how lucky
I’ve been in terms of who I’ve been able to work
with. I feel like just having the chance to be at Blizzard all those
years really was like winning the lottery in so many ways.
It’s hard for me to tell people that they’ll be
lucky enough to hit all zeroes on the roulette wheel because they
probably won’t be. So it was nice having that opportunity.

But the thing to think about is that those kinds of teams are created
by paying their dues. Blizzard both north and south collectively did at
least a dozen ports in the early part of the history of that studio in
the early 90s. I think if you want to look for the teams that will
really make good stuff in the future, look at some of the developers
that are kind of grinding through that phase in their history but have
a little more determination to develop their own properties. I think
that’s more where you’re going to find the stars of
tomorrow instead of the old guys like myself, at least I hope so.

Ten Ton Hammer:
Well it’s been great talking to you Matt.
Before we wrap things up, do you have any personal favorites as far as
game soundtracks go?

Matt Uelmen:
Well, I mentioned the old Streets
of Rage
on the Genesis
and that was a particularly good one. Pac
Man
*laughter* and Koji Kondo
was the guy that did all that did all of the original Mario stuff
right? Of course that’s all really, really amazing.

You know who actually doesn’t get as much credit for this as
he should that is an underrated game music composer is the original
stuff that Trent Reznor did for Quake.
That stuff really blew me away.
Between that stuff coming out around the same time that Jeremy Soule
was doing orchestral stuff, the standards were out there and in a lot
of ways I don’t know if we as a field have really progressed
beyond what Jeremy did in that RTS game and what Reznor did in those
ambient loops.

In the time since then there’s been so many solid composers
both here in Japan that I couldn’t mention just one or two of
them without insulting the other 20 or 30 of them, but the industry
definitely has blossomed.

But I definitely enjoy the old warhorses in terms of Koji Kondo and
stuff like that. Obviously the old wavetable stuff is so limited
compared to what people can texturally really do now, but those games
definitely give you a sense of place despite not having that in the way
that all composers could aspire to now. I just love the way
he’d do the transitions to the underwater swimming game or
other secondary levels. You definitely feel like you’re
actually progressing with the game. It’s no easy trick to
take that hardware and make a 20 hour gaming experience for people and
I think the music is a big part of why that series was such a smash in
the first place.

Ten
Ton Hammer
: Thanks for taking
the time to talk with us!

Matt
Uelmen
: And thank you!


To read the latest guides, news, and features you can visit our World of Warcraft Game Page.

Last Updated: Mar 29, 2016

About The Author

Sardu 1
Reuben "Sardu" Waters has been writing professionally about the MMOG industry for eight years, and is the current Editor-in-Chief and Director of Development for Ten Ton Hammer.

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