Interview with Matt Uelmen (June 2012)
Composer and sound designer Matt Uelmen can lay claim to having created some of game music's most iconic sounds in his soundtracks for the Diablo franchise. After having worked for Blizzard Entertainment on the Diablo games, Starcraft, and World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade, Uelmen joined newly-formed developer Runic Games. In his role, Uelmen has composed the scores for Torchlight and the upcoming Torchlight II.
In this in-depth interview, Uelmen details his work and approach to the Torchlight scores, his musical inspirations, and his personal musical style at large. He discusses the details of recording with the Slovak National Symphony Orchestra, the various tools and instruments he uses to create the characteristic timbres of his works, and his influence and contributions to Diablo III.
Interview Subject: Matt Uelmen
Simon: Matt Uelmen, thanks for taking the time today to talk about your work. With Torchlight, you returned to the Diablo-style dungeon crawler genre. Considering how iconic your Diablo sound had become, did you make a conscious effort into making Torchlight sound different? What was your approach to Torchlight and did the fact that the game was developed for the casual market impact its music?
Matt Uelmen: I consciously did try to make the approach to the music a little different, in that I put a big, less gloomy melody up front in the town theme and also put a spotlight on the classical guitar there, which is an instrument that never appeared in the Diablo series. I suppose those budget constraints do relate a bit to our attempts to be casual-friendly, but I wouldn't say that's a linear relationship you can have a casual-friendly approach with any kind of budget, really, it's more of a design mindset than anything. The gaming multiverse contains the latest Zynga masterpiece and Dwarf Fortress.
Simon: With Torchlight, you went from writing music for AAA titles like Diablo II and World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade to working with Runic Games on a much smaller title, presumably with quite a different budget than on your Blizzard games. Did this impact your work on Torchlight, or did you work with similar or the same sound libraries as before, which had technically evolved since your Blizzard days anyway?
Matt Uelmen: I think each one of the big projects I worked on at Blizzard Diablo, Diablo II, Diablo II: Lord of Destruction, World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade, all had very, very different parameters in terms of what the games needed, how much time I had, my personal goals as a musician, etc. In some ways, The Burning Crusade was actually not all that different than Torchlight for me, in that the clock was ticking relative to the demands of the project. Basically, I had about a year to deliver what turned out to be three hours of music for The Burning Crusade, and about four months, discounting time on sound work, to deliver about forty minutes for Torchlight.
In regards to the original Torchlight, we were on such a rushed timetable that I didn't have the luxury of doing much in the way of live work outside of my own bag of instrumental tricks. I was also catching up with almost a decade of audio technology, in that the work I was doing in mid-2006 on World of Warcraft was based around "gigasampler" which was and is a great program for its time, but still basically a 90s style sample console. With Torchlight, I was finally using a program with all of the sample libraries and live recording tracks integrated into the same space (Logic), and had some very quick learning to do in regards to catching up with that stuff. So, even if I had wanted to do a big live thing, we didn't have the time or money for that, and that situation dictated the sound to a great degree on that project.
The main difference, and my saving grace on The Burning Crusade, was that I had some good orchestral work in the vault which was relatively fresh (even if it wasn't originally intended to be used in the expansion), and was used as a resource in a few key places. I worked with the Vienna Library on both projects, and wouldn't say that I technically evolved too much in the two years I took off most of my mental space as a musician in those two years was put into playing standards on the pedal steel, which was actually really good for me, even if it didn't directly relate to composing.
Simon: Torchlight II features a bigger world than the first game, with multiple towns and cultures. How did you reflect this change through your music, and which new instruments and moods did you add to the world of Torchlight? What elements of randomisation did you manage to add to the music to have it adapt to changes in the game like the day/night cycle?
Matt Uelmen: Torchlight II, like many large-scale video games (including Diablo II and Outland in The Burning Crusade) has an "around the world" element to it, though it isn't too over-the-top. I definitely did indulge in some of the same kind of approaches referencing Middle-Eastern and Asian cultures which I've used in the past, but I tried to have a light touch and use the live strings as much as I could. Some of the stuff from the live sessions I was most proud of were string bends in phrases that referenced a bit of what we associate with Middle-Eastern sounds it's definitely trickier to make that kind of material than to just do a tabla loop and throw some sitar samples on it. I use non-common signatures and things like shaker percussion all the time, even when I'm not referencing anything "ethnic", so working with those kinds of elements is pretty natural for me.
We managed to get in different day and night cues for all three major towns, and I'm generally happy with how that worked out, though we didn't get the equivalent in for exterior action sequences. Maybe next time! I'm actually a big, big fan of day/night cycles in games, and was happy we at least got that in. Unfortunately, ogg/mp3-style compression gives you less options than wavs in terms of using internal markers, so even though I wrote a few pieces hoping to have internal markers used in the way they were used in Diablo II, that just wasn't possible. We made a few sacrifices to keep the audio assets relatively lean in terms of compression, and hopefully they pay off in terms of making the game accessible for more people.
Simon: After your score for Diablo II: Lord of Destruction, you once more recorded with the Slovak National Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Kirk Trevor for Torchlight II. In an earlier interview, you mentioned that working with a real orchestra for the first time had been a bit terrifying. This second time around, did you feel more relaxed when collaborating with this large ensemble? In general, in how far did these recording sessions in Bratislava differ for you from the ones for Lord of Destruction, or did they feel quite similar?
Matt Uelmen: Actually, this was the third time Kirk and the Slovaks were in many prominent spots in The Burning Crusade, from a session I recorded in January 2005. It definitely was different in that I very consciously tried to keep the work on a manageable scale by excluding winds and brass. If I give my brain a few weeks of working on it to adjust, I can read the viola clef, so that took most of the terror out of it, in that I can read a strings + percussion score reasonably well. Trying to proofread a score with transposed winds and brass is just terrifying, and even top-flight players like the ones that record in Studio One there can have fatigue issues in terms of brass intonation, so excluding those two issues from the start helped a great deal.
These sessions were very different in that we did it all, basically, in a 24-hour period, using the last two sessions of the afternoon/evening followed by an early morning session the next day. Also, I'm just better at writing for strings after a couple of cracks at it, and better at communicating with Kirk in terms of what I'm after.
Simon: One of the distinguishing features of your soundtracks has often been the use of all kinds of non-classical percussion instruments, including steel drum on Torchlight. Considering that Lord of Destruction had been rock percussion-free, was it a challenge to bring orchestra, percussion and of course guitars together on Torchlight II, both from a compositional and recording point of view?
Matt Uelmen: One of my goals as a musician has been to try to integrate rock and orchestral elements as much as possible. That isn't terribly rare or unusual Henry Mancini and the Beatles were trying it almost fifty years ago. The work I did in January 2005 actually helped me develop a bit in that regards if you listen to "Nagrand", you'll hear adagio strings that integrate somewhat well with the more mellow, rustic, "ethnic" sounds of rainsticks, non-western winds, and in the opening sequence for Outland, I tried to go from a big Holst-type chord into a downtuned drum and electric guitar sequence. The orchestral elements there were from Bratislava.
The main thing I've tried to get from the percussion in Bratislava all three times is just monster bass drum sounds, and snare choir sounds. Maybe the Alfred Newman theme under the old 20th Century Fox opening made a strange impression on me as a kid. But I love the sound of a snare choir, especially a pianissimo one, and, of course, there's nothing like a bass drum resonating with low strings in a big studio. The resonance in the bassi and celli is actually half of the sound, and it is nice if the signature sound of that goes with other string material.
Simon: You've mentioned previously that the music of early 20th classical composer Alexander Scriabin was an important influence on your work for Torchlight. Could you elaborate a bit on what aspects of Scriabin's fascinating and innovative work interested you and how they impacted Torchlight's music? Is Scriabin's music still felt on Torchlight II, or are there other influences that we'll hear on this new score?
Matt Uelmen: Well, I wouldn't give myself credit for putting the energy into really absorbing Scriabin's work in the same way that I tried to do with Wagner earlier in my life being a family man has meant that it is much harder for me to really dig into an artist in that way. The piano piece I adapted in Torchlight caught my attention because it was on a Glenn Gould CD I happened to buy while working on the game, and I heard the possibility of putting a beat behind it in a way that could fit.
The other piece I adapted and put a little bit of study into Prometheus is just an incredible slice of music history on many levels. It almost anticipates Pink Floyd's acid-rock light shows 60 years later. And, like Wagner in Tristan and Isolde, it manages to create its own strange harmonic language. The "mystery chord" from Prometheus does appear in an easter egg level in Torchlight II, and I actually had the chance to do some fun things using it with the Slovak National Symphony Orchestra's strings in Bratislava this time. But, again, I can't really say that I totally absorbed what Scriabin was doing there, or the bitonal stuff that Stravinsky was up to at the exact same time. I'll get there, hopefully!
Simon: You mentioned in an earlier interview that a stripped-down, atmospheric piece like "Tristram's Theme" works on a psychological rather than a narrative level. Did you follow the same approach on the Torchlight scores, which are less gloomy than your Diablo soundtracks and if so, what do Torchlight's lighter sounds tell us about the psychological state of its world? In general, given that your compositions are ambient rather than melodic and narrative-driven, how do you give the player a sense of progress throughout the game?
Matt Uelmen: That's one of the more interesting things about the art form, and I don't know if it has any kind of analogue outside of the medium, in terms of giving a sense of progress while maintaining a consistent identity. Obviously, a reappearing melodic theme helps, and I definitely flogged the Torchlight theme to death in this soundtrack, though I think the effect is reasonably subtle when you actually play the game.
The main thing I try to make sure to do is to give the areas a somewhat unique sound which references and reinforces the vibe the background art is going for. I'm really lucky in that, once again, I'm working with a great crew of background artists. [Torchlight II Lead Level Designer] Patrick Blank, in particular, is extremely sensitive to things like ambient sound for a given level, and if we succeed in giving a sense of unique atmosphere level-by-level, my role is strictly secondary to the visual artists in terms of making that happen.
Simon: You've worked both as a composer and sound designer on the Torchlight games and other titles in the past. Given that your music is quite textural and sometimes ambient, do you feel there is a certain overlap between your activities as a creator of soundscapes and sound effects, to the point that the border between the two elements dissolves somewhat in the final product?
Matt Uelmen: There is absolutely an overlap when all those pistons are firing correctly, and that is definitely the number one thing I miss about working at Blizzard. Folks like Joseph Lawrence and Brian Farr do amazing work in terms of creating ambient soundscapes, and I've always loved how Derek Duke can create pieces that brilliantly skirt the boundaries between ambience and composition. Generally, I've always stuck ambient elements in the music tracks themselves, and have kept the room tones fairly vanilla, though real random interplay between those two is best, if you have the resources to do it.
Simon: In an interview around the time of Diablo II's release, you were asked to describe your musical style, and you said that the Diablo games had cast a long shadow over your musical development, to the degree that it was hard to differentiate between your Diablo music and what might be your own individual musical style. Some years later now, and in the light of how the Torchlight scores both resemble and differ from the Diablo soundtracks, have you come closer to finding out if there's a difference between your own musical style and the Diablo music?
Matt Uelmen: That's a tough one to answer. I think every project has its own place and time, as their own piece of art and entertainment, and the artists that work on them are also in a particular place when they make them, which can never really be revisited or recaptured. People want to return to a particular place in time for sentimental or commercial reasons, but that's just impossible. And the more you develop as an artist, the tougher it is!
More specifically, though, I would emphasise that genres and background art dictate a certain approach and some limitations in every case. Some day I'll get to do a project which is far, far away from the fantasy genre, though I'll always love it. My favourite musical experience when I was with Blizzard in Irvine aside from getting to work with the truly awesome [solo flautist] Pedro Eustache a couple of times was having a chance to do a science-fiction type approach in "Netherstorm".
Simon: Your music has frequently been published outside of the common album release format. For Diablo II, there was the "MP3 of the Week" campaign on the game's website where you posted new music each week; in 2011, each fansite that attended the Fansite Event with Runic Games got their own exclusive music track; and now for Torchlight II, 25 fans chosen at random via Facebook will receive the game's score. What is your general motivation behind such non-traditional release forms? On that note, the unique instrumentation and composition of your pieces would make for some interesting live performances. Is this something you'd like to see happen and if you were asked to put together a concert performance arrangement for either Torchlight or Diablo, how would you approach that task?
Matt Uelmen: In terms of the CD giveaway, we just printed up a bunch for E3, and if you visit our booth at PAX, I wouldn't be shocked if there are a few there. In any case, the game itself has almost twice as much music as could fit on a single CD, and almost all of it was mastered at 48Khz before going to a high-rate .ogg, so, if anything, the in-game quality is a hair higher. It was made purely as a fun promotional thing. When we did the weekly mp3 thing, I saw that in a similar light just a fun promotional extra for fans.
Part of me would really love live perfomances, but, really, I'm a studio rat. I would be frustrated because I'd want to perform on a few different instruments, and my nails can only have one length at any given time. Also, so much of my sound is about using ridiculous amounts of things like echo effects, reversed recording, and pitch manipulation, which don't always work well in terms of a live environment.
Simon: Originally, Runic Games had planned to release a Torchlight-themed MMORPG right after Torchlight. Ultimately, this changed to Torchlight II being released first. What plans do you have for the MMORPG, and in how far will it differ from the previous two Torchlight scores? In how far have these plans been impacted by the fact that Torchlight II has now been developed before the MMORPG project?
Matt Uelmen: I spent over a year on The Burning Crusade, so I know a little about what it means to work on a successful MMO, and part of me would enjoy that challenge. And it really is a challenge it's a very different mindset than a game which is structured around something like a 40-hour campaign, even if you hope that campaign has great replayability. Our management is experienced and smart enough to have a healthy respect for the challenges that come with that type of production, and I should probably leave it at that! When we have a definite project to announce, we will.
Simon: To finish off, just a couple of questions about Diablo III. Before leaving Blizzard, you had already started working on Diablo III and at one stage recorded an hour-long guitar session with your ideas for the game. How far had you progressed with your work on the game before leaving the project? Could you elaborate a bit on what material that guitar session included, and in which direction you were planning to take Diablo III, particularly after Lord of Destruction had turned out a lot more symphonic than previous Diablo scores?
Matt Uelmen: I did do a fair amount of work for Diablo III, but almost all of it was repurposed for World of Warcraft in the time I worked there. At that point, the MMORPG was adding something like a hundred thousand subscribers every week, and the audio team was in a state of flux. We had recently lost a few veteran composers, Russell Brower was just hired as lead, and Joseph Lawrence and I had just arrived from up north. So, our main priority was World of Warcraft and getting the newer guys in Irvine, including myself, integrated into a good flow and much of the material I had previously worked on was a fairly natural fit, especially for key content like Naxxramas and Nagrand.
The guitar material was recorded in literally my last week at Blizzard, in January 2007, and I did absolutely no editing work on it, though I was pleased to see it integrated with the work of a real master like Laurence Juber all those years later. I assumed that I was going to come back to Blizzard by the end of that year and use it as the rough basis of material, but, obviously, fate had different plans. I have no idea what the game would have sounded like had I worked on it, but it would have been great to have had a chance to work with that team in their current incarnation. They have hired some really amazing talent in the past few years.
Simon: Part of last year's The Music of Diablo: Diablo 15 Year Anniversary album were two concept pieces that you wrote for Diablo III, which provide a rare work-in-progress insight into the making of a game soundtrack. What stage of the composing process do "Hydra" and "Lord" represent were they relatively early drafts or closer to fully-fledged compositions?
Matt Uelmen: "Hydra" was the only significant piece from the January 2005 sessions which wasn't reworked into World of Warcraft content, and I actually worked the orchestra pretty hard when we recorded it. I think it is safe to say that the anvil is to action fantasy music what the cowbell is to rock and roll. I think it stands up fairly well, and was flattered that Russell seemed to reference it in what ultimately became his excellent title theme.
"Lord" had a few problems, and I was a little shocked to see it released. I used the final chords for the Outland intro piece, but, otherwise, considered that piece to be deep in the recycling bin. Of course, if it makes for an entertaining curio, that's great.
Simon: Many thanks for your time today, Matt Uelmen. Is there anything else you'd like to say about Torchlight II or your work in general? Do you have any messages to readers from around the world?
Matt Uelmen: Sure, thanks to you for the thoughtful questions, and thanks to everyone that has enjoyed the games I've worked on. I'm incredibly lucky to have had the chance to work with the teams that I have, especially the current one, which has a very long, bright future in development ahead of them.