Interview with Sam Hulick (May 2011)
While a relative newcomer to music scoring, Sam Hulick has already worked on several eminent projects. He has been central to defining the sound of the Mass Effect series with his original themes and electronic fusions. Having worked alongside veterans such as Tommy Tallarico and Jack Wall, he will next go solo for the eagerly anticipated first-person shooter Red Orchestra 2: Heroes of Stalingrad for PCs.
In this interview, Hulick gives insight into his journey from enjoying RPGs to composing hit titles. He focuses particularly on his work on the Mass Effect series, noting how he created the main theme for the original game and darkened the sound for the BAFA-nominated sequel score. He moves on to give a preview of his work on Red Orchestra 2: Heroes of Stalingrad, discussing how he created a rich thematic soundtrack for repeated listening.
Interview Subject: Sam Hulick
Chris: Sam Hulick, many thanks for your time today. It was your combined love for music and video games that resulted in your choice of career. Could you elaborate on what led you to become passionate about these areas?
Sam Hulick: Well, I've always been into video games and computers since I was very young, and was always especially passionate about fantasy RPGs (The Bard's Tale on the Amiga back in 1985 was my first). And on the musical side of things, my father was always involved with bands and music, so I had access to all sorts of instruments growing up. I started writing my own music in my early teens on an Amiga computer using a tracker. Eventually the music in video games started sounding better and better, and I realized combining the two and making a career out of that was something I wanted to pursue.
Chris: You made the transition from fan to pro when your music was recognised by the Game Audio Network Guild. Could you describe this journey? Did you expect it to lead to your first scoring assignment?
Sam Hulick: I think it was around 1998 when I started getting serious about pursuing a career as a composer. I remember I was highly influenced by Michael Hoenig's work in Baldur's Gate. It was one of the first video game scores where I thought "hey, the quality of this is really great" and I started trying to figure out what the professionals were using (at the time I was on a Roland XP-80 workstation). I went through this really long fantasy RPG kick, started working on music in that vein, and sent off some material to BioWare. I think at one point they even asked me to sort of unofficially demo for something that required Asian-flavored music it was a "just write something and send it in" kind of thing. Funny to think back on that and realize that I was, to some extent, being considered for Jade Empire.
Anyway, at some point, I had joined G.A.N.G. and a composer contest was announced. I wrote a fantasy-themed piece called "Wyndmere" and it won. It was definitely the first big stepping stone for me on my career path. I had hoped it would at least lead to more recognition, and I got a bit more than that!
Chris: Your first game score was Capcom's Maximo vs. The Army of Zin alongside Tommy Tallarico. How did you offer a modern sound to a classic series on this title? What tracks did you contribute on this ensemble score?
Sam Hulick: My music caught the attention of Tommy Tallarico who was looking to update the sound of the score with a more orchestral approach. I wrote for the levels "Into the Fire," "Gallows Gorge," "Drained Depths," and "Sunken City," about eight minutes in total.
Chris: You have described Mass Effect as your breakthrough score. Could you tell us how you helped to define this score with your main theme and other contributions?
Sam Hulick: My first task when I was brought on board to co-write Mass Effect with Jack Wall was to write the main theme. The first draft I wrote actually contains what I call "Shepard's Theme" (1:10 into the main theme on the soundtrack), but it didn't immediately sink in and BioWare wanted to hear more. Another concept was the first half of the main theme that starts with the synth bass pulses. It was around that time when Casey Hudson, the producer, had an "aha" moment. We wound up merging these two concepts together, and there it was. I'm glad Casey was so discerning with helping shape the main theme, because the final result is something that fans often describe as one of the most iconic themes in games.
Chris: The music for Mass Effect distinctively blends orchestral performances with analog synthesizers. From both a musical and technological perspective, how did you combine these elements to develop a science-fiction sound?
Sam Hulick: The original musical direction for Mass Effect called for a vintage analog synth sound, with references to Vangelis and Tangerine Dream. On a more specific level, Casey had asked that the synthesizers be placed in the same reverb space as the acoustic instruments. That was part of the unique Mass Effect sound.
Chris: You went solo on the downloadable content Mass Effect: Bring Down the Sky. How did the production process for this score differ from the main games? Did you have much creative freedom here?
Sam Hulick: Well, obviously the DLC has a significantly shorter development timeline than the full game, so it was a much simpler matter of writing a small amount of music and delivering stems. There was definitely more creative freedom working on the DLC compared to the main title. If I recall correctly, the music was written and approved in one pass.
Chris: The soundtrack for Mass Effect 2 was darker and more cinematic than its predecessor. How did you develop the series' sound on this sequel?
Sam Hulick: There's been a natural progression going on from the very start of the original Mass Effect, and even within that single game you can hear the music become more cinematic and weighted towards an orchestral sound during the end-game cinematics. So we carried that into Mass Effect 2 and made it a little darker at the same time, but still kept many of the electronic elements going. It ties in nicely with the prequel, though it is somewhat of a departure from the more vintage sound of the first game.
Chris: It appears that the score for Mass Effect 3 will take a novel approach under Clint Mansell. What are your thoughts on this shift in approach?
Sam Hulick: I think BioWare has set out to wrap up the series with a cinematic bang. It's funny, because way back on Mass Effect, there were a couple of musical references to Clint Mansell's work when we were working on the cinematics and some of the end-game sequences. And with some of Clint's latest works (Moon in particular), I think he's a great candidate to score Mass Effect 3. I'm looking forward to hearing what he comes up with!
Chris: Beyond the Mass Effect series, you are solely responsible for the music of Red Orchestra 2: Heroes of Stalingrad coming out this year. How did you convey this decisive and tragic battle with your music? What feelings were you aiming to convey?
Sam Hulick: I had to pour a lot of emotion into this music; that was first and foremost on the list of requirements from Tripwire Interactive. The darker cues make heavy use of slow string movements, while some of the triumphant Russian cues borrow from Soviet marches. There are several moods present in the score, depending on what's going on: defiant, somber, majestic, urgent, triumphant, and depressing. Together these create a full spectrum of the emotions in battle.
Chris: Completely unique scores were composed to portray the Russian and German sides of the battle. Could you elaborate on how you contrasted the two sides? Is this where your references to the classical greats of the respective countries came in?
Sam Hulick: Throughout the Battle of Stalingrad, there's a recurring sense of defiance and steadfastness from the Russians. From the German side, there's a feeling of bravado and overconfidence as they stormed into Stalingrad, which shifted to complete and utter desperation as the war came to an end in the winter months. The German soldiers were repeatedly forced into battle by Hitler, despite their desires to surrender. The entire score definitely has a modern sound to it, but there are hints of classical styles there: Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, and Rachmaninov were references, as were Beethoven, Wagner, and Bruckner. To top it off on the modern side, Tripwire referenced Enemy at the Gates for the Russian side, too.
Chris: The game features an interactive music system that matches the flow of the battle. Could you elaborate on this system and what it brings to the experience?
Sam Hulick: It's not quite your typical interactive music that matches what's going on during combat, where you might adjust the intensity based on the number of enemies, or how close to death your character is. Since many people tend to mute the music in these kinds of online multiplayer games and play their own playlists, Tripwire and I decided to emulate that by providing a "playlist" that fits the mood of the game. So instead of looping a track over and over (which would get quite tedious on maps that last several minutes) we've set up a playlist that runs through a list of cues. A cue plays from start to finish, and then the next cue is played. The priority here was to suit the mood, not necessarily match the action.
That being said though, the playlist changes based on your team's morale, so if your team starts performing poorly, there's a transition cue, for example, that that plays to bring you from a neutral morale state to a low morale state. Then at that point, the playlist consists of low morale cues that are played one after the other. And of course, the music selection depends on if you're playing axis or allies.
Chris: A soundtrack release is planned for Red Orchestra 2: Heroes of Stalingrad. Could you tell us more about what this release will contain? How do you think the music will stand up on a stand-alone level?
Sam Hulick: Details of the soundtrack are still being ironed out so I can't really provide any solid information on that. I will say that I think the music absolutely stands on its own outside of the game and is quite listenable. That's always my goal when I score for media, to make sure that what I'm writing is compelling enough to encourage people to listen to it completely on its own. Despite spending so many months working on this music and hearing it so much, I still have my favorites that I listen to over and over. I hope other people like it just as much!
Chris: A couple of years ago, you also revealed that you are working on a meditative solo album. What is the concept for this release? Are you still working on it or are scoring assignments your current priority?
Sam Hulick: I wish I had more time for it! The album takes a backseat to work, so unfortunately it is still nowhere near completion. I used to write music years ago that fell into the new age category. I dislike labeling it as such, for fear of conjuring up images of panflute music with waterfalls in the background. One of my biggest musical influences in that realm is Ray Lynch, his later works are these really incredible blends of synth and acoustic instruments that transport you to another world. I wanted to get back to writing more music like that and change what people think of as new age, but I've been a bit too busy. I suppose that's a good thing, but I do think it's important to take a deep breath once in a while, pause and make time for writing music that's solely for the purpose of artistic self-expression.
Chris: Many thanks for your time today, Sam Hulick. Is there anything else you would like to say to readers?
Sam Hulick: I'm both pleasantly surprised and excited over the amount of buzz about Heroes of Stalingrad. When I first signed on to write the score, I never expected it to blow up this big! PC Gamer has given it lots of love, and I think it's become one of the most anticipated PC games for 2011 for many gamers out there. I've logged some hands-on time with it, and it really is not your usual WWII game at all. The attention to detail is incredible on every level: gameplay mechanics, graphics, and audio. I don't want to ruin any surprises for people, but it's definitely worth checking out if you're looking for a strategic team-based WWII game that strikes a very comfortable balance between historic realism and playability. Tripwire has struck gold with this title and I can't wait to see where we go from here!
I'd also like to invite people to visit my website to get a sneak preview of the soundtrack. I'm very excited about it and can't wait till the game and soundtrack are released. Thanks for having me I really enjoyed your questions!
Many thanks to Greg O'Connor Read for coordinating this interview. Learn more about Sam Hulick at his official website.