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Interview with Rod Abernethy (October 2011)

Rod Abernethy has pioneered high quality production values on a range of game scores. Among his career highlights include the orchestral recordings of Dead Space and TERA, adaptations of the films Transformers and Star Trek, and his hybridised score for id Software's newly released RAGE.

In this interview, Abernethy reflects on his career highlights and gives an insight into his most recent scores. He emphasises that, while the scores for the post-apocalyptic shooter RAGE and the fantasy MMORPG TERA are different in essentially all respects, they both complement their games and were extremely enjoyable to score.

Interview Credits

Interview Subject: Rod Abernethy
Interviewer: Chris Greening
Editor: Chris Greening
Coordination: Greg O'Connor-Read

Interview Content

Chris: Rod Abernethy, many thanks for talking to us today about your scores for RAGE and other projects. First of all, could you introduce yourself to readers and tell us more about your musical background and influence?

Rod Abernethy: I've been writing music since I was a teen. I started out in rock bands and was signed to major labels such as Warner Bros., Elektra, Atlantic, and MCA Records, collaborating with producers such as Paul Rothchild (The Doors, Bonnie Raitt), John Anthony (Roxy Music, Queen) and David Lord (Peter Gabriel, Tori Amos, Tears for Fears, The Pretenders). I performed a lot on the road and then I decided to focus on my studio-based work and composing for video games, film, and television. Since then I've composed for over 60 video game titles.

Chris: You describe RAGE as a 'dream gig'. What appealed to you about this first-person shooter and how did you first become involved?

Rod Abernethy: RAGE is created by id Software. They created Doom, Quake, and Wolfenstein, three of the greatest first person shooters of all time. It started with a call from Christian Antkow, audio lead for RAGE at id Software. We hit it off from the very beginning. His input and ideas for the music direction were key in getting the right feel for the score.

Chris: RAGE features a post-apocalyptic setting and action-packed gameplay. What sort of soundscapes did you use to portray this world? Is it true that we should expect a highly hybridised score?

Rod Abernethy: The scores were tailored to the gameplay and made to accent what you're seeing and playing. Sometimes abstract orchestral, sometimes industrial with aggressive synth, sometimes a mix of both. Sometimes there's a bottleneck slide guitar. One might describe RAGE as a hybrid, highly stylized action score.

Chris: Described by some as a spiritual successor to Doom, listeners are expecting some iconic themes in RAGE. What can they expect? Are there any major recurring themes that occur through this score?

Rod Abernethy: I didn't focus so much on recurring themes as much as I did trying to create the best action scores for gameplay. There are many styles, but they are all RAGE... Particularly notable is the intro to Wellspring, a western desert-style settlement that's the safe haven you go to in the Wasteland. The theme there is a haunting melody that I played on dobro slide guitar with some electronic drone ambience. It's the RAGE "motif" that can be heard in a lot of the gameplay marketing vids.

Chris: You used cutting-edge technology to create a high quality sound on RAGE. Could you elaborate on the hardware and software you used to produce high quality sounds for such projects? Were any live instruments integrated?

Expect live guitars — electric and acoustic — that I've twisted and mangled digitally with just about every guitar amp sim made, and lots of external guitar pedals of all flavors. In terms of other equipment, I'm still using Digital Performer with the addition of Reason and Bidule. I love Rob Papen's virtual collection — incredibly intuitive — in addition to lots of Native Instruments stuff and Project Sam Brass, Percussion, and Symphobia. I love Sonokenitic's Tutti, their abstract orchestral library, and tonnes of East West Samples including The Dark Side.

Chris: Before you came to work on RAGE, you developed a successful partnership with Jason Graves on titles such as Blazing Angels, Silent Hunter, and Alpha Protocol. Could you describe the nature of this collaboration further? How did you split roles between you?

Rod Abernethy: Jason worked with me and Rednote Audio for many years, we were lucky to have worked on some great games. We had a great working relationship; he's a very talented composer.

Chris: You described the award-winning score for Dead Head Fred as a particular highlight for you. How did you create such a distinctive score for this title? Was it a refreshing departure from more serious action projects?

Rod Abernethy: Dead Head Fred allowed me to stretch into new territory with my writing. Thanks to the vision of Vicious Cycle Software and D3, they gave me the freedom to experiment and make some really interesting horror music. Really fun stuff.

Chris: You have also worked on numerous licensed projects, including Star Trek, The Hobbit, and Transformers. What were the unique demands of such projects? In each case, were you mindful of the precedent of existing scores from each franchise?

Rod Abernethy: I love scoring movie projects. It's great to work with a pre-existing style for the scores. Especially when you're asked to compose in a style like Jerry Goldsmith or Howard Shore, my idols! And then there are times when they want me to compose whatever I think works best for the gameplay — never mind the movie score!

Chris: We also note that your resumé includes numerous television and trailer projects. Could you elaborate on the highlights of such works, be it personal or professional?

Rod Abernethy: I love composing no matter what the medium. And hearing my scores on television and in theaters is always a thrill. I particularly loved working with THQ on the Darksiders theatrical trailer. It features War, one of the Four Horsemen of The Apocalypse, having a seriously bad day and taking a joy ride on his flaming horse. I composed an ethereal and bombastic orchestral score featuring choir and heavy percussion to complement the dark, apocalyptic style of the game.

Chris: In the field of orchestral recordings, you co-produced the sessions for Dead Space. Could you tell us more about your involvement in this ground-breaking score? What was it like to work with two major scoring orchestras on this title?

Rod Abernethy: I was very fortunate to be involved in the early stages and initial brainstorming of Dead Space with Don Veca and Jason Graves. We all met several times at Electronic Arts to brainstorm about the music, determine how it would interact with gameplay, and plan the live recording. Then we went to Seattle and San Francisco to record live. I co-produced and coordinated all the live orchestral sessions, while Jason conducted. Working with the Northwest Sinfonia in Seattle and the Skywalker Orchestra at Skywalker Sound was incredible — a dream come true.

Chris: You also recorded your own score for the MMORPG TERA with the Northwest Sinfonia. Was it refreshing to have this exuberance? What do you think these recordings bring to the music?

Rod Abernethy: TERA is a huge online MMORPG that needed a lot of music, and I mean A LOT. The scores are very much in the fantasy action genres — with lots of acoustic guitar, stringed instruments, and big dynamic orchestrations. It needed to sound epic and live, so we went to Seattle. It turned out great! We couldn't have done it without the help of Paul Taylor, a wonderful orchestrator in LA who also worked with me on the live orchestral scores for Dead Space.

Chris: With its epic fantasy setting and role-playing gameplay, TERA is a marked departure from titles such as RAGE. How did you accustom your scoring approach for this game? What unique features should we expect from it?

Rod Abernethy: Well, to start with, there's no bouzouki, Celtic harp, or penny flutes in RAGE (laughs). The style is different, but it's another style I feel very comfortable composing. Ultimately it's all about focusing on making a better experience for the gamer, no matter what the mood or style.

Chris: Earth Defense Force: Insect Armageddon was another project you were recently involved in. How did you approach this traditionally Japanese-developed franchise? Do you think your contribution matured the series' music?

Rod Abernethy: Vicious Cycle and D3 gave me a lot of freedom for Insect Armageddon... as long as it sounded like giant mutant alien bugs kicking earth's ass! (laughs) Heavy action materials like this are always great to work on.

Chris: You've also worked on several smaller titles in the last year, for example Doritos Crash Course and Matt Hazard: Blood Bath and Beyond. How do working on such projects differ from major gigs? Do you still find them satisfying?

Rod Abernethy: It's always satisfying. There's no second best, and I give every game the same attention and focus. And seriously, it's all about having fun isn't it?

Chris: Many thanks for your time today, Rod Abernethy. Is there anything else you'd like to say about RAGE or your other works? Best wishes for the future.

Rod Abernethy: Thanks for the great questions! Keep your ears and eyes open for a RAGE soundtrack... and now go out, and play RAGE!