For video games, TV shows, and movies, soundtracks function as the ultimate concept album in charge of bringing the whole piece together. Music conveys the atmosphere and emotions players should be experiencing as we explore the worlds that are put before us.
Recently, I was able to catch up with friend, composer, and rock musician Andrew Hulshult, who has worked on scores for games like Rise of the Triad, Bombshell and the breakneck FPS title Dusk.
Within the past year Hulshult even released his DOOM soundtrack remastering, which sounds more brutal than the original and will make you feel as if you just fought your way through the hordes of Hell. During my interview with Hulshult I was able to sit down and discuss the process of working on both games and music as a career and hobby.
During our interview I learned that he draws on his experience from all his past works, but most importantly IDKFA. He still sees the album's music show up every now and then by accident while working on newer pieces.
"IDKFA shows up every now and then when I'm writing something for a game. I'm like 'oh, duh, I can't do that', it'll be accidental, because whenever you do something like that for such a big collection of fans, like I was - I really wanted all those to be really good for the DOOM community. It all came out really well, but the problem is, I sat and trenched for it for a year, year and a half, but every now and then I will have moments where IDKFA pops up in original music I'm making. Thankfully it's, like, almost gone now.
But it definitely helps sharpen the tools."
After his quick explanation we continued to discuss where his music comes from. I soon came to learn that he doesn't necessarily find inspiration from the works in musicians such as Mick Gordon, Hans Zimmer, or other composers. For Hulshult, he doesn't find inspiration, instead he finds ideas, small muses that he wants to use in his sound design.
He finds himself drawing ideas from developers such as CD Projekt Red's Marcin Iwiński and Mick Gordon.
"I kind of look at them when ever they are talking about it, and I am like, 'oh wow it's not just me that's kind of doing these weird little things that get you from A to B.'
I'm like, if you want to create a really good soundtrack, you can, you can do it with regular old tools and you can just go 'I'm just going to load up a drumkit and guitar track,' but if you want to be really unique you can set up systems, like what Mick Gordon discussed in an interview where noise would get to a certain point where it would start distorting when you would hit a kick drum or pull a signal through a couple of pedals or something like that.
That's one of the things that has been intriguing things for me. It's cool to be knowing that, cool, I'm doing the right thing, I'm heading the right way. I'm not just, 'oh I designed this thing and it kind of sucks, but it works for the music.'
But yea, I do get inspired by those guys from time to time. Mick's a great composer, one day we might work on something."
His idea isn't just a philosophy. During my time with the indie game Dusk by developer David Szymanski and producer Dave Oshry of New Blood Interactive, I decided to sit down, crank the sound effects down and the music up.
I got tracks that were eerie, ones that drove home the atmosphere I was experiencing just perfectly. Having listened to Andrew Hulshult's music before, I wasn't surprised at his capability to allow for such immersion. His ability to draw me in not exclusive to just high-action, guns blazing encounters.
Instead, I found his ability to settle for even subtle guitar riffs, the soft hints of drums and distortion.
As combat picked up once more, I found his musical compositions also growing aggressive, almost echoing that of something I'd expect from a heavy metal concert performed by a five man band, not by one man.
During my time at #QuakeCon, I was able to get a feel for what he has in store for us, something that was brutal, heavy, but well suited for what was being displayed on screen. I had to ask Hulshult just how he gets prepared for composing the pieces he does:
"I play through it 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 times. I'll play through it as many times as it takes, really. But most of the time, I'll play through it 2 to 3 times, to get a good feel for what the player will experience right of the bat and then I'll make my own assumption and then I will go back after the fact and talk to the designer, and be like 'what was your intention, because this is what I got out of the game.'
So when I'd run through a level, I would start making a piece of music, and if I went to the designer with the demo, or something, I would hand it to them and they're like, 'this is wrong,' I'd be like, 'let me explain this where this is coming from.'
There was one time this happened with Szymanski and I was like 'well let me explain, my idea with this,' and he was like 'oh, the narrative was like this and here, and here,' and maybe something changes on my end or his end."
I've hear developers talk about how they will have an incredible idea, but somewhere it will get completely scrapped, something that happened with the most recent DOOM entry. Hulshult actually told me he had a few projects change, as happens quite often in development.
However, his hardest part of being a composer for games? Business.
"Understanding the business. Writing music is fun, it's hard, but it's not as hard as understanding how things work. It took so long for me to figure out that you have to contact people a certain way, that there's politics involved, and it's back and forth, that kind of b.s.
You can only get a job with this company if you are insured, or if you have an LLC, because if they get sued for the music, and you accidentally copy someone else? You are going down. Like, it's not the person with the copyright going after you. They are going after someone like Bethesda. I'm not working for Bethesda, but lets say I did. Bethesda would then come to me and they would say "Hey, we have to pull these copies for a day off of Steam" or even "just an hour and then we have to re-upload the build."
They are still going to ask for the project sales from you and expect you to pay it back, and they are going to sue you. So understanding legalities on the side of the business has been the craziest part and now that I've got my head kind of wrapped around it, I've started getting some things done with my own business and I've kind of been working as my own company.
I don't plan on having some big studio or something like that supporting me from home working from there and just making sure I have insurance."
I learned that being a musician isn't easy, but life as a composer is even harder. Soundtracks aren't just about sitting down with a guitar, drums and getting it ready to go. It's also about programming.
"A lot. I will use that and a lot of stuff in Dusk. In fact, that's half of the entire thing. Sitting down with a synthesizer and messing with it until I get something I want that feels like atmospheric. Something that feels like a low tone in a room or a high pitch in a room, I will run it through a reverb, a chorus, a second reverb, a third reverb, a fourth reverb, a delay, pitch it down, pitch it up. I will find something that is interesting. That's all that matters to me at the end of the day: Is it interesting?
It can fit the narrative, it can stick the narrative and be interesting, but if it's not interesting? I don't give a shit. It just has to be interesting."
As our interview came to a wrap, Andrew Hulshult finished talking about continuing to find inspiration after years of non-stop composing.
"If someone is losing inspiration, they kind of need to. It's happened to me a handfull times. It's happened to me more in the last three months than I care to admit between one other project and Dusk. Everytime that I lose inspiration and I'm like - I can't do this, this is shit, I am shit, I can't do this, you need to find a new composer, somebody that's a real composer in my own head - is taking a break.
But taking a break and knowing mentally when taking a break is the biggest part. Because, the issue with taking a break, because anyone can be like, "yea I need to step out for a moment" is knowing mentally that you need to just take a break."
The last thing he had to say? You need to go check out Dusk on Steam.
"It's bad ass. It's only 20 bucks on Steam. Totally worth giving it a shot."