Veteran and award winning composer Chance Thomas has been composing for games for over 25 years. His games include a diverse array of projects including Lord of the Rings Online, and Avatar. In addition, he is the author of the excellent book Composing Music for Games. Recently, Chance released the 10th Anniversary Soundtrack for Lord of the Rings Online with original music inspired by his many years of research in the Tolkien literature.
What is your educational background?
When I was considering my education, I didn’t think a career in music was practical. So I studied business at Central Oklahoma State University. I was on my way to earning a marketing degree. After two and a half years in Oklahoma, I got a transfer scholarship to finish my business degree at Brigham Young University in Utah.
Shortly after arriving at BYU, I discovered that there was a recording studio on campus – 24 track Otari, Neumann mics, Yamaha grand piano, the works. They also had a synth lab with DX-7’s, Drumulators, even a full blown Synclavier system. You could actually get a music degree with an emphasis on recording engineering and music production. I couldn’t resist. I switched to the music school and graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in music. My senior project was recording an album of original tunes!
How did you get started in the industry?
I came into the industry in 1996 with a strong background in orchestral writing. I was determined to create one of the world’s first live orchestral scores for a video game, and was given that opportunity with the classic adventure game Quest for Glory V: Dragon Fire. I was turned on to the opportunity by a neighbor who was big into Sierra adventure games. Sierra was looking for a full-time composer and I applied for the job.
You recently opened a large studio facility in Salt Lake City, HUGEsound. Can you describe what that was like, and the kinds of services you offer?
Yes! HUGEsound Post Production. We serve the video game, virtual reality, television, music and film markets. We have three primary divisions – PICTURE, MUSIC and SOUND.
The Picture division handles everything from story boarding and filming through dailies, editing, color correction and finishing.
The Music division offers live orchestral recording, score composition and production, interactive music design for games and VR, artist development, a record company and a music library.
The Sound division delivers sound design, Foley, ADR, dialog recording and editing and surround mixing.
All the gear is state of the art, the pipeline is smooth and efficient. The quality of work we deliver is truly exceptional, and our pricing is unbeatable across the continental USA.
You’ve worked on so many different games in multiple genres – what do you feel like are your strengths as a composer, and weaknesses?
Strengths? If anything, epic fantasy, action-adventure, and sci-fi are my strengths. Weaknesses? I’m not especially strong at Scottish Pirate Metal.
For composers thinking about where to move, Salt Lake City isn’t typically the first on their list. Can you discuss the pros and cons of being a composer living in Utah?
#1 would have to be the talent pool. There’s something in the water here. I don’t know, the place just seems to sprout polished talent like crazy. Especially the orchestral session musicians. They are exceptional. Even when I lived in California, I would come to Utah to record my scores. Fabulous sound, great attitude, super low cost. It was my secret weapon for years.
Quality of life is terrific here as well. Low cost of living compared to other major media markets. Stunning national parks all over the map. Family-friendly culture. I love it here.
In your career you’ve donated your time and energy to groups like GANG (Game Audio Network Guild) and others. Can you talk about the value of contribution to our industry?
For starters, when you get involved in your community, you are adding value. That should be reason enough. But you also tend to make great friendships, which in turn may open some unexpected doors for your career. It’s a win-win.
What is the most challenging aspect about composing for video games?
The challenges today are very different from the challenges we faced when I came into the business. Back then, the big challenges were primarily technical. But now, there’s not really anything you can’t do – given sufficient time and resources. So today, I think the challenges are mostly artistic. And isn’t that a great place to be? Today we have finally arrived at a place where our primary focus is on simply making music that is elevating, thrilling, memorable, and a perfect match for the game.
How do you go about selling yourself to a new client?
The most important thing is to find a client who is developing an IP I’m enthusiastic about. Next, I learn all I can about the project, and start thinking about ways in which I can add value. Only if I can truly add value to the project will I approach a prospect and open a dialog.
Projects and Writing
Can you describe your workflow when beginning a new project? More specifically, typically how long does it take to establish a direction?
One of my favorite composer interviews is James Newton Howard talking about his work on Signs. He talks about getting started quickly, and not overthinking the approach. I agree with that, and tend to find my footing on most projects fairly quickly.
I always begin by imagining myself in the world I’m about to score. What am I seeing as I look around, what’s going on around me, what’s the atmosphere like, who am I surrounded by, and most importantly, how does it make me feel?
Once I can identify and conjure up the right emotions, getting the music to fit is not as difficult.
You’ve composed many excellent scores including Lord of the Rings and Avatar. What makes a good project, verses one that didn’t go so well?
For me, it’s all about the depth of the IP. Give me a rich world and a great story. And enough time and budget to do it right.
Many of your scores have used themes, what kinds of things do you think about when writing a good theme?
Sometimes I’ll find a phrase that matches or flows from the IP, and I’ll try singing that phrase with different melodies until I find one that really resonates. Other times, a melody will present itself while I’m envisioning myself in the fictional world. If none of that works, I’ll try noodling around on the keyboard until I get lucky.
Tell us about the The Lord of the Rings Online 10th Anniversary Commemorative Soundtrack – is that a compilation of previously recorded music, or a new recording?
I’m so proud of this product. 10 years in the making! This is a collection of the most beloved music from my 10 year collaboration with Lord of the Rings Online. With tracks dating back to 2007 and coming forward to 2017.
What is your favorite track on the 2 album set, and why?
Depends on my mood! If I’m looking for something ethereal, beautiful and mysterious, Ages of the Golden Wood and The Hollin Gate are favorites. If I want to get my adrenaline pumping, then it’s Drums in the Deep or Orc Hunt. Maybe I want to hum along with a strong theme, so Theme for Rohan or Song of the Dwarves would be a good fit. Tough to single out an overall favorite.
You did extensive research on the lore of Middle Earth to derive the timbres of each clan and race in Middle Earth, can you describe an example by comparing the sonic palettes of the Elves and the Dwarves?
For the Elves, I give emphasis in the orchestra to harp, violins and the reed family. Singing voices are clear and pure, primarily using sopranos and tenors. Emphasis in small ensemble would be given to gut strung harp, lute, theorbo, solo cello or viola di gamba. An overarching stylistic interpretation for Elvish music would be ethereal, magical, sad and sweet. Individual variations of the overarching style would include worshipful and classical for high elves of Rivendell, dreamy and warm for elves of Lothlorien, folksy and mischievous for wood elves of Mirkwood. The home key for Elves is A minor.
For Dwarves, emphasis in the orchestra goes to trombone/bass trombone, clarinet/bass clarinet, double bass, timpani. Emphasis in small ensemble is given to metal strung harp, clarinet and bodhran played heavily in the center. Singing voices are deep-throated and rugged, primarily using basses and baritones. Stylistic guidelines for Dwarven music would include adventurous, stout, mythical and stately. Their home key is D minor.
Can you describe a typically workday? e.g. how much audio are you creating, how much business development and promotion, reviewing music in the game, meeting with developers etc.?
I like to start my day composing. First thing in the morning, writing music tends to be the most productive for me. After lunch, I can schedule meetings, catch up on social media and business correspondence, and strategize.
What does your rig/room look like? Are there go-to tools that you like working with?
Here’s a photo of my scoring room. I have a large and comfortable client area complete with refrigerator and snacks, plus a producer’s desk for working through a score together. My composing rig is at the far end of the room, with a pull out piano keyboard tray under my mixing desk. I compose in Digital Performer, track into Pro Tools and do sheet music prep in Finale.
Here’s where I work when tracking live musicians and singers (below). The console is a Neve Genesys Black, and the control room is connected to our scoring stage in the background and one of our iso booths on the rights. You can see the additional width of the scoring stage through the background window of the iso booth as well (left of the door).
How do you go about deciding on the back-end audio tech for a game? Do you use middleware like Wwise / Fmod / Elias, and if so, are you implementing your own music into the creation tools or do you let the developers handle that?
I like to work with the developers on this. Every team I’ve worked with has had their go-to system for handling implementation.
Looking back on your career, what do you wish you had known earlier that may have helped you get you to where you are at today?
Hmm, maybe when to buy and sell stock from large companies like EA and Microsoft! Apart from that, I’m really happy with the path and trajectory of my career.
What skills do you think are most lacking amongst students that are entering the industry today?
As you know, I’ve visited college music programs from coast to coast over the past several years. There are a couple of things I’ve seen repeatedly in my travels. First, very few college music students have any concept of the staggering difficulty of building a long-term, financially and artistically rewarding career in composing. It’s hard, and lots of people give up or wash out. Second, very few have developed the skill and judgment necessary to deliver a stellar sounding track that hits a definitive stylistic target for developers.
What would you recommend to young composers and sound designers looking to get their big break in video games from a business perspective?
I studied marketing before switching over to music, and that marketing background has helped me immensely over the course of my career. I believe that most composers will need a lot of business skills in their toolkit in order to find and maintain success. I touch on many of those tools in my textbook, Composing Music for Games.
When hiring people to work for you, can you describe the optimal skill set and personality traits for a potential hire?
We recently hired J Scott Rakozy. He had a commercial music degree and had been out in the marketplace for a while working with one of Blizzard’s top composers, Sam Cardon. He also invested significant time and energy into developing his sound design and engineering skills. He laughs a lot, and is eager to tackle whatever task I throw at him. It’s like having an audio Swiss army knife in the studio.
If applicable – how did you find your last hire? e.g. did you post an ad, or how did you meet them?
Scott came to my book signing party and happened to win the first raffle for a Composing Music for Games sweatshirt. Then his wife won the second raffle for the other sweatshirt! It gave us something to joke about, created a unique personal connection. Later, he came to HUGEsound and brought his wife and parents to show off the studio, telling them he hoped to work in a place like that someday. Still later, he met with our senior sound designer, Michael McDonough, and offered to help out with some sound design and ADR tasks coming down the pipeline. It all added up – right place, right preparation, right energy, right level of persistence (but not pesky), right time.
Designing Music Now Articles with Chance Thomas