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A Conversation With Alexander Brandon


FRIEZA: Today we're talking with none other than Alexander Brandon, who wrote nearly half of Unreal and UT's soundtrack. First of all, thanks a bunch for doing this interview with us!


First things first, how did you get involved with Epic?

Around 1993 a friend of mine, Jason Emery (now working at Griptonite; a company that makes handheld titles), had created a very cool vertical scrolling engine with parallax scrolling (two or more layers moving at different speed to give the illusion of depth). He also made a tile / sprite editor to create levels. I created a pitch package for Origin, Epic and Apogee, though the Origin idea fizzled quickly since Origin's sprite engines were a bit more advanced at this point. I spoke with Tim Sweeney for awhile as well as Scott Miller and it looked like Epic's sister company Safari Software would sign on this shooter. Safari was created for budget, less cutting edge titles. However, what we needed to get cutting edge was an artist, and Safari's producer, Robert Allen, found Daniel Cook as our artist and "Tyrian", the shooter Jason and I came up with, fast became an Epic title along with Jazz Jackrabbit, Epic Pinball, and about 3 years later, Unreal.

Did Epic give you any directions as to how the soundtrack for Unreal should sound like, or were you given a great deal of freedom?

I pretty much wrote anything I wanted. Cliff would describe the situation and I'd play early builds and the music was written based on inspiration alone. It was awesome.

Did you base your songs on sketches, game demos, screenshots etcetera, or purely from a description of the level, or nothing at all?

Builds were mostly the inspiration but in addition everyone was art brainstorming since in those days there really wasn't an art lead, at least not at first. Rodney Matthews and Roger Dean were books Tim had in his office and I'm sure some of the game's grandiose scale came about partly because of that style. The music followed suit.

Did you have to change your songs a lot after sending them to Epic for the first time, or would they just accept everything you threw at them?

Some songs needed some revision but the biggest issue was everything was 8 bit samples at first, and I fought tooth and nail to get 16 bit. Carlo Vogelsang, the guy writing the sound engine, finally gave in and thank God he did. You can still hear some of the terrible sample rates in the songs. As far as style goes not much needed revision. We just wrote tons and tons of music and what fit best in the levels is what went in.

Unreal's map outline was changed quite a bit through development, did you create a lot of extra content that had to be discarded? Do you still have them?

We did create a lot of content that needed to be put in the Level Pack and / or scrapped. At one point I hope to release the entire collection of music in MP3 format, but it might be out there in its S3M / IT form somewhere. Epic owns the rights to all the music so we'll have to wait and see.

I'm certainly hoping it will! Now, there's quite a distinct separation between the Unreal songs, moody and upbeat, what's your favorite kind when it comes to writing? And to listening?

I like everything and write everything. Seriously, everything. Tim McGraw to Rob Zombie to Tribe Called Quest to James Horner. In this case however a style developed all its own in some cases such as Dusk Horizon, which really can't be categorized except "semi-electronic cinematic." In Michiel's case he leaned sometimes towards more electronic but also wrote some very original orchestral pieces.

How closely did you and Michiel work together for both soundtracks?

Pretty closely at first, but for UT we just got direction from Cliff and handed in songs rather than writing an adaptive score the way we did for Unreal. Some pieces such as the Chizra Temple were split 50/50. He'd start it off, I'd continue, then give it back. It was great fun and I think it worked out very well.

One of the things that made Unreal's score so coherent was the use of shared samples between the two of you, in what other ways did you and Michiel establish a consistent style for writing Unreal's music?

In the compositional technique of trading back and forth, but we also just had a lot of similar preferences stylistically.

How different was the experience of writing the soundtrack for UT, and which style of music (between Unreal and UT) comes more naturally to you?

I think I liked how Unreal turned out better in terms of a composer. In the case of UT I became more of a music producer, signing Necros and Skaven, Basehead and Tero Kostermaa (ack, can't remember his handle) to write more music that just worked in the game well. In recent talks with Tim he said something very true... that nothing like Unreal came before it and there's been nothing like it since, including the soundtrack.

I completely agree with Tim There! =) Do you ever listen back to the songs you made for Unreal and Unreal Tournament, and if so, what's your opinion about them nowadays? Did you produce any content for Unreal that you were particularly proud of, or are now embarrassed by?

Eh, yeah, some pieces are embarrassing, mostly ones for UT like Superfist where I tried to rock out geek style and ended up failing miserably, even with a shiny new Ibanez Jem guitar. That's why I found Skaven's Razorback song and it went in. It's still one of the most popular pieces.

What's your favorite Unreal/UT track?

Hard to say really. For UT it'd have to be Three Wheels Turning or Mechanism 8 or Skyward Fire, or Razorback... geez I've no idea, I like 90% of them a lot, but for Unreal I've no idea. Maybe Dusk Horizon (the first piece you hear coming out of the ship at the start of the game).

Time to move on, what was it like to work on Deus Ex after Unreal?

Fast and furious. I only had 4 months compared to two years to write the music for Unreal and at least a year on Unreal Tournament, and the scope of the game was far larger, with cinematics to boot. While I really like the music itself in Deus Ex (Michiel contributed a lot to DX as well) I'd have done things a lot differently if I had to do it over again.

Why did you decide not to do Unreal 2's music? Were you consulted concerning the sound and feel of Unreal's music?

I took a full time job with Ion Storm in Austin working for Warren Spector. He was (and still is) a hero and I just couldn't write anything that'd compete, or even distract me from work on the sequel to Deus Ex. I was consulted at first, then I handed the job to Chance Thomas, who gave the job to Jeremy Soule, who then passed it on to Tommy Tallarico. It's one of the funniest stories in the business that I wish I could give more details on but we'll need to wait another few years to let that one out of the bag. :)

Did Epic ever ask you to write music for UT2003 and UT2004?

Nope. I had moved on at that point and it was time for something fresh in the Epic coffers anyway. I still maintain a good relationship with Cliff and Tim even in the midst of how damned crazy busy they are... heck, we all are.

Talking about UT2004, what did you think of Kevin Riepl's remix of your song Go Down?

I must admit I still haven't heard all the remixes of my stuff, but I have heard that one and I like all of Kevin's tunes in varying degrees. I'll definitely say the remixes of my stuff sounds much better than the original. They're all extremely clean and well produced, but just like tunes anyone writes, some are catchier and more unique than others.

How did you land the job for UT2007 and how does it feel to be working on another Unreal title again?

Coincidence that I started working for Midway's third party division when UT2007 came around? I think not, but yeah in truth it really is coincidence. Epic had just hired Mike Larson, their current audio director, and I jumped at the chance to provide some new and fresh content. It really does feel great to be working with Epic again.

What will you be going for with your work on UT2007? Any thematic links to Unreal? Can we expect remixes of familiar songs?

There you take me into dangerous territory :) While I wish I could divulge all I know about the master plan for UT2007's music, Mike is the person to ask and Epic does an extremely good job of keeping things secret until they're released, which I like actually. Back in the days of NES you heard about a good game because a friend brought it over to your house, not because you read about it on Gamespot five months prior to its release.

I guess we'll just have to see then! =) Any other games you're working on currently?

Yes, but none that have been announced. They're all Midway titles and cool games but you'll definitely hear about them soon.

If Epic would ask you for Unreal 3 (if they ever decide to develop it), would you take the job?

Oh hell yes. And it'd sound incredible too due to what I know now, but I have a feeling Mike would do just as good a job at it. Gears of War is coming soon so be sure to check that out, you'll see how his maiden project turned out at Epic!

Now for the more technical side of things, what equipment do you use when composing tracks these days? Is it very different from the old trackers? Do you still track once in a while?

I'm using a Roland XV-88 and a Yamaha 01V96 mixer plugged into Cubase SX3 and a lot of Gigastudio and other plugins. Things are night and day compared to tracking, but I do sometimes dabble in it now and then. Check out my blog for one of the best MODs I did back in those days.

How do you go about writing music? Do you start with a bassline or a rhythm or something else? And where do you get your inspiration for individual tracks?

Totally random, sometimes it'll be a string section, sometimes an Absynth patch. The inspiration is harder to come by, admittedly, as advances in gaming aren't quite as obvious. It's a matter of more realism, and in the case of Unreal it was a matter of more splendid fantasy.

I noticed Dan Gardopee sampled a Future Sound of London song for Unreal4 (Erosion), were you big FSOL fans? Did you use a lot of sampled materials in Unreal's score?

That's the first I'd heard of that. While I like FSOL I don't buy their music (except Wipeout XL, muahah). We did use a lot of samples but mostly synth samples as opposed to "ripped" samples.

Since MODs, what changes in the tech do you enjoy the most? What, if anything, do you miss?

MODs allow unprecedented freedom because virtuosity or ability to play isn't a factor. It's the same with the Ad Lib Visual Composer; the first piano roll format tool on a PC. These days once you discover virtuosity it definitely enables you, but you can never forget the power of working with a grid rather than a fretboard or keyboard. That's what I miss most... just deriving anything and writing it without regard for instrument range or skill.

Do you know what your partner in crime, Michiel van den Bos, is up to nowadays? Do you still have contact with him?

I confess I've lost touch. I need to track him down! Anyone who finds him send me his email and I'll be very grateful.

Have any recent soundtracks caught your interest lately?

Yes, and it isn't from a game... it happens to be "The Closer", an NBC crime series. The soundtrack for that is well beyond standard TV scores. It sounds more like a film, but even more importantly, it uses different instrumentation! Not just standard stuff. I like that a lot.

How did Straylight Productions come to it's end?

Straylight began with Andy and Dan (Necros and Basehead in the MOD scene), Andy went to Origin, I went to Ion Storm, and Dan went to Tapeworks, who allowed him to continue writing for Straylight with Jake Kaufman (a fabulous composer, he wrote a great Contra remix on When Dan went to THQ recently, that's all she wrote. Straylight was a great production house for nearly ten years. A good run... about as long as Media Ventures ;)

Finally, one of the things that's been nagging me is that a few tracks don't have any info on the composer. After having listened to the Unreal and UT soundtracks for many years and analyzing your personal styles, I think I can guess pretty accurately who made what. Nonetheless, could you put my mind at ease on this? If you can still recollect individual songs =)

Certainly! Yes, we didn't always include info in the sample list, so shame on us for that.

I'm thinking you wrote EndEx (Extreme End), Opal (ALF), Utemple (Unreal Crypt), Inter (Intermission), Return (Interlude II) and Starseek (Star Seeker)?

Correct except I'm not sure which song is Star Seeker. I wrote Starship One for ISV-KRAN but eventually Michiel's tunes replaced it, and since they were all based on each other it was a lot more appropriate and contiguous.

Michiel wrote Cannon (Cannonade), Course (The Course), Lock and Nether (Nether Animal)?

I wrote Lock actually, but the rest is Michiel.

My mistake! Lastly, together you wrote Warlord (Warlord Theme), Ending (Escape from Na Pali), Title (Return to Na Pali) and UTMenu23 (Unreal Tournament Menu)? This I'm basing purely on the fact that you wrote most of the intro's, outro's and boss battles together.

Correctamundo on all counts. The only intro or ending we didn't collaborate on was Flightcastle, the title screen music in Unreal.

Thank you very much for taking the time to answer all of this!

My pleasure. And to whet everyone's appetite, look for a very exciting announcement from me coming in the next few weeks on my blog.