Sam Hulick: Composer for the Stars

It takes a lot of effort to build a game, and no company knows this better than BioWare. With Dragon Age 2, The Old Republic, and their beloved Mass Effect franchises, a lot of effort is going into making these games shine. Getting the music right is just as important, and the guys behind one of the biggest games of last year—Mass Effect 2—worked hard to make sure everything was perfect.

So let us introduce you to Sam Hulick. He’s relatively new to the composing sphere, having jumped into game composition with Capcom’s Maximo vs Army of Zin, but he’s come a long way since then. He’s one of the biggest minds behind the music of Mass Effect 1 & 2, and he shared a little wisdom of composition with us.

GameZone: Hi Sam. Please tell us a bit about yourself, your work, and how you got involved in video game music composition?

Sam Hulick: Well, I always had a love for video games from very early on, and in my late teens I started writing music as a form of self-expression. So at that point it was purely for the sake of art, and it wasn’t till several years later, around the late 90s, when I started to get serious about pursuing a career in writing music for games. I won a composer contest in 2003 that gained me some recognition and led to me working with Tommy Tallarico on Maximo vs. Army of Zin. My career really took off in 2007 when I co-wrote the Mass Effect soundtrack with Jack Wall, then Mass Effect 2 in 2009, and of course my recent work on Red Orchestra 2: Heroes of Stalingrad, which marks my first major solo project.

GZ: What about video games has attracted you? What’s it like for you when you sit down to work on a game?

SH: What I really enjoy about writing music for games is that it’s like taking a canvas and painting it with moods. Since games consist of levels that are highly dynamic and therefore unpredictable to some extent, there’s a lot of detail about the feel or mood of a level and what the character is generally setting out to do. I like to get a set of mood “keywords” (minimalist, dark, urgent, heroic, etc.) and soak in concept art or screenshots and/or video footage, if it’s available.

GZ: What’s your typical work process when you make music for games?

SH: Usually the first task to tackle is coming up with a main theme, which can be a long process. The main theme has to be strong and memorable, and this part of the process is definitely one that shouldn’t be rushed. I like the main theme to have a couple of different motifs that I can use throughout the game to glue everything together.

GZ: Mass Effect was a group process with Jack Wall, among others. How many people worked on the soundtrack for the game, and what is it like to work on a group composition like that?

SH: Mass Effect was initially Jack Wall and myself for quite a stretch, and toward the end, Jack brought on some additional talent, Richard Jacques and David Kates, to help score cinematics and many of the end sequences in the game. And actually, when people think of composers collaborating, they might picture us all working on tracks together, but that’s not really how the process works. There was some idea-sharing here and there, and Jack would often offer feedback and direction, but it was more of a task-force approach where we divided up the tracks and worked mostly independently of each other.

GZ: Mass Effect’s soundtrack is pretty interesting. There’s the otherworldy element incorporated, but much of the sci-fi feel is almost retro in styling. There’s a gentle organic quality I also really like, with a subtle bit on menacing electronica contrasted with epic orchestration. What did you look for when making the music of Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2?

SH: Vangelis and Tangerine Dream were two musical references that were pretty important in defining the sound. I think you can definitely hear elements of those sounds in the music we wrote for Mass Effect, but we also added something of our own by mixing in orchestral elements. So that direction carried over into Mass Effect 2, but it matured into something a bit different, a little darker, with more weight toward the orchestral side.

GZ: How did you end up on the Mass Effect franchise?

SH: It was pretty funny how things worked out! BioWare got in touch with me and had asked me to demo for a new game they were working on. I found out that Jack Wall recommended me to them since he was too busy to demo. Of course, I was thrilled, and got to work. Soon after that, I got an email from Jack telling me that his situation had changed and that he was on the demo after all! He ultimately was chosen to score the game, but both he and BioWare liked my demo materials so much that I was brought on to co-write the game with Jack.

GZ: Part of the difficulty of working on games is how anything can change on the fly. How difficult is composing music that could change at any second to better reflect what is on screen?

SH: It’s challenging for sure when you approach it for the very first time, but like anything else, it gets easier. We used Wwise with Mass Effect 2, and thanks to having Brian DiDomenico on our team as implementer, it made everything pretty straightforward for us. We just had to pay attention to which bars the music started and ended at, and write intros and outros for the interactive tracks, so Wwise had somewhere to jump to when the music was supposed to end. And of course for combat tracks, we had “low” and “high” versions that play depending on, for instance, how many enemies you’re facing.

GZ: What’s next for you? Are there any projects you can talk about?

SH: Red Orchestra 2: Heroes of Stalingrad is my next project due out really soon that I’m very excited about. It’s something completely different from my work on Mass Effect, a really intense score with hints of German and Russian influence. It was definitely my biggest musical challenge to date and I can’t wait until the game and soundtrack are released.

GZ: What inspires you as an artist and composer?

SH: I try to get inspiration from within as much as possible. No doubt there are external influences musically, and there are certain artists that helped me start my musical journey. At this point, though, my musical inspiration is kind of an abstract process and a highly emotion-driven one, as well. Within the context of scoring video games, this is usually how it works for me. I try to put myself in the shoes of the character, or of the environment itself, and construct an emotional mindset from that and use it as a framework to write the music.

GZ: What’s your opinion on the state of video game music?

SH: It’s really going exciting places! I think the biggest development lately, of course, was Christopher Tin winning a Grammy, and NARAS officially modifying four of the Grammy categories to include video game music. That definitely says something about how the general public perceives soundtracks for games and how it’s being taken more seriously. I just hope that as the music we write becomes more mainstream, we don’t lose sight of the uniqueness that makes video game music special and gives it such a cult following.