Who doesn’t know Frank Klepacki? The now only 42-year old (how is this possible??) has created some of the most iconic retro game music of all time. We hold him most dear for his work on Command & Conquer but you’ll know him from Dune II, The Lion King, Young Merlin, the Petroglyph Star Wars games, the list goes on and on. And needless to say he’s a very nice chap as well as a retro gaming god. Adrian caught up with him for a cuppa to discuss the ins and outs…
You are a true legend of the gaming and music world. Could you explain how you first got into the video game industry?
You’re too kind, thank you. I began as a tester, and eventually moved into the audio dept after a trial period of proving myself capable. I’m very grateful to have had that opportunity, and fortunate that I had foresight at a young age to learn about recording, performing, and computer audio. It gave me a starting point of skill to be able to learn and adapt quickly.
You have worked on so many classic video games. Is there a soundtrack or piece of music for one particular gaming title you are most proud of?
Proud of a good number of them – the Command & Conquer stuff of course, Blade Runner, Dune 2000, Star Wars Empire at War, End of Nations, Grey Goo, I mean, there’s themes in all of them that are favourites.
You are probably best known for your stellar work on the Command and Conquer games as you mentioned there, how did you gain inspiration to go about creating the now iconic soundtrack for these games?
The most important thing I can stress about that process was that I was encouraged to experiment and tap into a wide variety of influences. That in itself allowed for me to stretch as far as I wanted in any direction and see what worked well and what didn’t. Most of it was used, especially in the first C&C, the only ones that weren’t were the most extreme genre explorations, everything from thrash to rollerskate music, lol. By the time we got to Red Alert there was a feeling of honing in on style, so it was more refined from that point forward.
Dune 2 really opened the doors to all future RTS games – it brings back so many happy gaming memories for me. How did you manage to push the Amiga to its musical capabilities and create such atmospheric music?
By the time I started on Dune 2, I was working on the PC using adlib sound card (FM synthesis based) we also supported Roland Mt32 and Soundcanvas midi playback modules. But its native composition sound began with the FM synthesis and doing a lot of hand-editing within the scores to constantly change instruments, tempos, and transitions.
Is it true that the legendary composer Hans Zimmer personally praised your great musical work on the Lion King video game? And if so, how did it feel to gain such high praise?
When we did the Super Nintendo version of the Lion King, Disney had sent over a rep from Hans’ studio to basically make sure they approved our versions of the score. When you’re doing a Disney title, every detail is on their radar for quality. So when he saw what we had to work with, the fact that we had to sample our own instruments to get it to be more authentic, and squeeze these samples in a space of 11k of ram allotted at any given time, it really surprised him that we were able to accomplish as much as we did with such limitations. So after he gave his feedback and we finished the project, Westwood received a letter from Hans’ studio that he enjoyed how I’d re-interpreted his music for the game. That was very cool.
Can you run us through a typical day of writing music for a video game?
For me it has to start with an idea, could be a melody, a bass line, a rhythm, or just instrument sounds. Once the first bit comes out of that, then I just keep adding on to it until it’s going somewhere I think fits the mood or the action. There’s implementation methods to consider, but I believe first and foremost I should write good music first that I’m happy with and figure out how to adapt it later if there’s some specific way that is required.
How did the opportunity come about to become the audio director for Petroglyph Games?
After Westwood was closed, Petroglyph was formed and they started meeting with publishers for potential titles to work on. It just so happened the first game they landed was Star Wars, and they already knew I was a die-hard Star Wars guy so it was a natural choice for me to direct that since I know every bit of those films to the last detail. I’ve audio directed all their games for the last twelve years since.
Apart from your own work, is there one game that has blown you away with its musical score?
I have some favourites: Unreal Tournament; Skyrim; Jade Empire; Headhunter; Kameo Elements of Power; Red Dead Redemption; Transformers Devastation; just to name a few.
Do you have any advice to anyone looking to enter into music and/or video game industry?
Make sure it’s what you’re sure you are passionate about. Learn not only music, but recording, mixing, mastering, – it’s all required these days. I also recommend learning sound design and post production because it’s a lot tougher these days to just do music and there’s more need for sound design than music most of the time in games. It’s all about timing. People just aren’t thinking about audio usually until the end of their projects, so networking is important and having a genuine interest in the craft of making and playing games. Ultimately, having a mixed bag of audio skills transcends games to all other media so I encourage people to pursue it all. Start out with small devs, mobile games, mods, indie films, etc… Get some initial things done that can show your work for future considerations.
What musical projects are you currently working on?
8-bit Invaders! The third game announced in the series Petroglyph has been doing, starting with 8-bit Armies, and 8-bit Hordes. It’s a fun stylistic retro fast paced RTS that is a lot of fun and easy to get into. The first two games also have soundtracks available on Steam, and so will the third when released.
Away from creating music for video games, you have played for a number of bands. What area of the music industry do you most enjoy?
I enjoy it all. I’ve always done all of it and it’s just my way of life. I enjoy the creative process as much as I enjoy performing. I have to do both. So I crank out audio, voice over, and compose by day, and perform by night with any of my given band projects. My prog rock band in Las Vegas, The Bitters, released its fourth album this year called “Yes is IV”. My funk band Face The Funk released its second album “Somebody’s Dotta Do It” and I also released my eighth solo album in an EDM style, called “Digital Frontiers”. I also produce and record other bands or artists that request to work with me either in Vegas or even remotely in some cases.
Do you get the opportunity to play all the games you help create music for, and if so which video game is your personal favourite?
Of course! I see them at every phase of development generally. Star Wars Empire at War is my favourite. Though I have to say 8-bit Armies was a lot of fun for the fact that it did remind me of the old C&C days. I remember the first C&C very clearly being addicted to playing around the office in mid-development because we knew we had something special and we taunted each other over the conference phones before Ventrillo was invented… lol!
If you could go for a drink with any video game character, who would you choose and why?
Well I have had drinks with Kane in person already, so I guess that’s already been fulfilled!
Needless to say you guys probably commanded and conquered a lot of shots at the bar… Bad puns aside, Frank it’s been amazing to have you here at Arcade Attack, please keep us posted on your future endeavours!
Readers, you can check all of Frank’s goings on on his official website.