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Composer Interview: Tom Salta

posted Jun 11, 2015, 10:42 AM by Kaya Savas

MTV VMA nominated composer Tom Salta is one of the most versatile and prolific music artists/producers working in film, television, advertising and video games. Renowned for crafting emotionally engaging soundtracks for multimedia, Salta has received widespread industry acclaim for his world-class produced scores featured in video game titles such as Halo: Spartan Strike, Halo 2 Anniversary, Halo: Spartan Assault (G.A.N.G. Best Original Soundtrack Award), Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary, Ghost Recon: Future Soldier, From Dust, Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands, Red Steel (IGN Award for Best Original Score), Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter and Tom Clancy’s H.A.W.X series and original songs and adaptations for the world’s #1 dance game series, Just Dance. In addition to these scoring assignments, Salta has created music for numerous national commercials and ad campaigns for companies like Coca-Cola and the Marines, as well as music for Hollywood film trailers.

Interview Conducted By:
Kaya Savas

Special Thanks:
Tom Salta
Greg O'Connor-Read
Top Dollar PR

Kaya: So to start, let’s go back to the beginning. How did you get into music when you were younger and at what point did you decide that composing to visual media would be the career path you wanted to pursue?

Tom: Back in the mid-‘80s when I was in eighth grade, my parents and I visited some friends of the family. That day, their son showed me something that blew my mind - it was a Roland Juno-106 synthesizer. From that day on and all throughout high school, I was hooked, slowly acquiring various synthesizers and samplers, and enjoying the challenge of trying to recreate my favorite pop songs by all kinds of artists. For fifteen years, I was working professionally as a producer and songwriter but it wasn’t until I discovered the Xbox in 2001, and games like Halo and Rainbow Six, that I became inspired to write music for video games and realized that this was the next major step for me. It was such a strong revelation, like a light bulb turning on, that I pursued it as tenaciously as I could.

Kaya: Did you have any favorite composers, musicians or genres of music growing up that made an impact on you?

Tom: John Williams, without a doubt. When I was about 10 years old, I would sit and listen to the vinyl soundtrack albums of Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T., Superman, etc. to relive my favorite movies. I even bought the “movie cards” (instead of baseball cards) of Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T. that I would put in chronological order and flip through as I listened to the soundtracks. In fact, I still own them to this day. One of the aspects I truly admire about John Williams’ music, besides his memorable themes, is how visual the music is. I can imagine exactly what’s happening in the film when listening to his music.

Kaya: Your career has been focused on video games, and you’ve composed the music to so many games that I’ve personally played. What are some things that video games require from a composer that separates them from film and television?

Tom: The first thing that separates dedicated game composers from traditional (linear media) composers is that game composers have a fuller understanding of how games work and the possibilities for how music can be implemented. The whole idea of non-linear scoring can be foreign to many composers only familiar with traditional media.

Kaya: Would you say a composer needs to develop certain skills to be a successful video game composer? Especially since games come across so many platforms these days?

Tom: If I were starting over today, I would make sure I was intimately familiar with audio middleware like Wwise, FMOD, etc. I would also be sure to play, or at the very least, watch people playing lots of different video games in order to become familiar with all the various ways music is used. I think it also goes without saying that these days, composers should really know their way around the studio and be able to create a complete production from inception to mix. Often times, games don’t have a huge budget so it becomes necessary for the composer to wear many hats.

Kaya: Your scores to Halo: Spartan Strike and Halo: Spartan Assault have been fantastic entries in the franchise. Did you find it challenging stepping into a game franchise that has such recognizable music and the groundwork that Martin O’Donnell did?

Tom: Incredibly so, especially at first….Spartan Assault was the first time that I scored a franchise where the original sound was established by another composer….and not just any game, but some of the most popular and recognizable music in video game history. I’m also an avid fan of the franchise so needless to say, I set a very high standard to myself. With Spartan Strike I feel I’ve further developed my own voice in the series and am honored to be part of such a significant musical legacy.

Kaya: At what point in the process of the game’s production does music start coming into play? Do you start writing in the conceptual stages, do you ever watch footage and get ideas from that?

Tom: Music usually comes in towards the end of a project, similar to film. There are certain exceptions to that where the music itself is driving the game (in which case the music comes first or is created in tandem with the game’s development) but for most games that I’ve been involved with, music is one of the last elements to be integrated.

I definitely get ideas when looking at game footage. But when it’s too early to get footage, even concept art can be an inspiration.

Kaya: What separates Spartan Strike and Spartan Assault stylistically? Did you approach the two games differently?

Tom: Stylistically, they are the same. But I learned a lot from scoring Spartan Assault so I approached Spartan Strike a bit differently. For example, one of the things that I noticed after playing Halo Spartan Assault is that I felt some of the big, heavy cues that sounded great outside the game competed a little too much with the constant, dense sound effect bed of guns and explosions. Sometimes this required the music to be mixed a little lower than I would have preferred. So in an effort to avoid that situation with Spartan Strike right from the very beginning, I captured a few minutes of sound effects from the first game, and played them in the background as I composed the music. It immediately helped my perspective and allowed me to create music that breathed a bit more, complementing the sound effects rather than competing with them. Because of this, you might notice the music in Spartan Strike being slightly louder and more noticeable overall.

Kaya: Over your career you’ve done so many awesome games like Need For Speed: Underground 2 and many great Tom Clancy games. And they’re different styles of gameplay. If the gameplay of a game is first person, versus third person or versus racing… does that affect your approach?

Tom: The perspective doesn’t automatically dictate the musical approach. The individual feel of the game itself is what dictates the musical approach... I need to see the game in action. Even though Spartan Strike is a top-down shooter, the music itself doesn’t necessarily tell you that. But when you hear it in the context of playing the game, it fits perfectly and feels like it belongs there.

Kaya: Now before we wrap up I always like to ask composers, if you could score any film ever made pretending the original score never existed, which film would you choose?

Tom: That’s a tough one! I would probably enjoy going back to some guilty pleasures from the ‘80s and scoring a movie like Terminator or Aliens.

Kaya: Thanks so much for your time, Tom it’s been a real pleasure!

Tom: Thanks for having me.

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