With the “March of the Guilds” contest well underway, it won’t be long before a very lucky guild gets to win their very own theme tune – professionally orchestrated by renowned composer Neal Acree – along with a custom artwork and logo that could very well push said guild into community stardom!
As Neal prepares to give musical life to whichever guild wins the contest, we took the opportunity to pick his brain regarding all manner of topics – from the man behind the music to his experiences composing memorable melodies for famous TV shows, movies and video-games all across the globe.
If you’ve already submitted your entry into the “March of the Guilds” competition, then take this moment to learn about the talented gentleman who may very well be moulding musical memories for your guild in the near future via our
Hello Neal, our team at My.com and the community is very glad that you will be taking part in the March of the Guilds contest and fulfill one dream that many guilds most likely have. Before we get into details about your wide selection of epic soundtracks and work on Revelation Online, we’d like to get to know you a little bit more as a person and as a composer.
When did you start composing songs and what inspired you?
Like most 14 year olds that pick up the guitar I wanted to be a rock star. Rock music and heavy metal are what got me into playing at that time but I had loved soundtracks since I first saw Star Wars as a kid. I suppose it was inevitable that I would end up making soundtracks of my own.
I started by recording instrumental and experimental songs, taught myself to play piano and learned how to create music on the computer. The scope of the music I wanted to create continued to grow until I realized that I had always wanted to write for the orchestra. Eventually I came to realize that for me the power of music combined with the moving image was the ultimate form of musical expression. Looking back now it all seems inevitable.
What got you into composing video games scores?
Strangely enough I never set out to be a video game composer. I’ve always loved video games but I don’t think it even occurred to me as a career option. I started out wanting to be a film composer and that’s the world I lived in for 10 years before my first game opportunity arose. In 2006 I had the opportunity to audition for a project at Blizzard that I later found out was the opening cinematic to The Burning Crusade. Seemed like a wonderful opportunity at the time but little did I know it would open the door to an incredible new chapter in my life.
Which instruments do you play and which one is your favorite?
I play guitar and piano and it’s hard to pick a favorite. Depends on my mood or what kind of music I’m writing. I normally write on the keyboard but if the music is more guitar based, I’ll use that.
Since you compose scores for video games and films: what would you say is the biggest difference between the video games and film industry when creating an OST?
The truth is for me, there isn’t that big of a difference between the two. With both I am trying to enhance the listener’s experience and create an emotionally engaging score with a memorable theme that stays with them even after it’s over. I try to write music that resonates with the subtext of the story and help bring the characters to life. I never really set out to write “video game music” nor do I go out of my way to make my game scores sound like film scores.
The main difference is technical and comes down to how the music is experienced by audience/player. With film, the music is synchronized with the picture, linked to specific moments and edits in the story and with games the music can be made to adapt to the gameplay in real time. Sometimes game music simply plays at random intervals to create a mood or a sonic identity for the zone. This is more common in MMOs as there are so many different things a character might be doing in the game.
What is your favourite film or series that you have composed for?
Some of my fondest memories as a composer are working on the Stargate series (SG-1 and Atlantis). I learned so much as a composer during that time and I actually loved the show before I ever started working on it. I miss those days and I miss those shows.
When creating a new score, where do you start?
Every score starts with a conversation, whether that is with director or the game team. We discuss the role of music in the project as well as the world in which the music will live and the characters it will interact with. I usually start writing music in my head immediately as the story comes into focus in my head.
The next step is defining the sonic “palette”. Deciding what sounds, instrumentation and general approach I will use helps focus the initial ideas and help create a more cohesive sound in the long run. Much like a painter chooses an assortment of colors with which to paint. As much as this part of the process is about including interesting and inspiring sounds it’s also about limiting the infinite number of possible approaches to find the best starting point.
These decisions can be based on many things like the location of the story (like the Asian influenced world of Revelation Online), the time of the story (is it futuristic or set in the past?) or any number of influencing factors. From that first conversation to the moment I sit down to actually create the music all of these ideas are “incubating” in my head. Often when I first sit down to write on a project there is a burst of ideas that I later come back to refine.
Do you come across many challenges when composing/recording - what was your most challenging score so far
Absolutely. Regardless of how easy it might seem on the outside composing can be an incredibly difficult job at times. And then at other times it can be incredibly fun and rewarding. Those of us that make a career of it do so because we can’t imagine doing anything else. It’s not a job for the faint of heart.
The main challenge is that we have very little if any control over inspiration and yet our job requires us to become inspired and create focused and specific music at will. It’s a bit like wrangling lightning if that makes sense. I’ve spent the last 20 years trying to learn how to harness my own creative energy but I think it will always be a bit of a mystery.
The other challenge for me personally is that I want each score I write to be better than all the ones before it. So I’m constantly pushing myself to be better and it can be challenging to be in a constant state of discomfort like that. When I am able to break through to a new level though it is incredibly rewarding. When I live in that constant state of forward momentum I feel most in sync with my inner purpose.
The biggest reward for all of the hard work that goes into it is getting to hear the musicians bring the music to life. It’s what we live for. And then hearing that music echo back to us from around the world through cover songs and getting to perform it live.
How did you get involved with Netease? Were you approached by them to create the score?
My understanding was that NetEase was looking for a composer with a cinematic style so they went to the China Film Group, China’s main film studio for help. I don’t think they were necessarily looking for an American composer but my agency had a deal with them at the time and that opened the door to an international collaboration.
How did you feel when you were approached by Netease to create this piece? It is rare that an Asian developer will approach someone from the west to compose a soundtrack for their game?
Though it is a little more common now I think I was one of the first or second Americans to work for a Chinese game company. I had some experience writing Chinese themed music from working on World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria but it was a whole different thing to write a full score for the Chinese market in that style. It was a challenge I welcomed and an incredible opportunity to spread my wings and push myself to new musical territory.
What inspiration did you take when composing the scores for Revelation Online?
There was a lot of inspiration to be drawn from the story and artwork from the game but a lot of the inspiration came from having grown up surrounded by Chinese culture. My father was a big fan of Chinese cinema and philosphy and we even studied martial arts together. I think that’s part of where my familiarity with the style came from as I have never studied Asian music formally. I’ve always been a fan of Chinese and Japanese film composers like Tan Dun, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Shigeru Umebayashi, Kenji Kawaii and Toru Takemitsu. So I listened to a lot of their work in preparation as well as Chinese and Japanese traditional music.
When composing, what do you have to work with? Do you have cinematics, concept art, information about the story?
Usually all of the above. By the time a composer becomes involved there is usually a lot of story and concept art in place so there is a lot to draw from. The more information and visual stimuli I have, the better as all of that is creative fuel for composing. The better I understand the story and the visual style, the better I can find the emotional heart of the game. This is usually hiding just beneath the surface and it’s the first thing I try to find when starting a project.
Did you enjoy creating ‘The Chosen’ which is the main theme for Revelation Online?
Tremendously. It’s a rare and wonderful opportunity to get to write a piece like that, a long form, fully developed theme and to write it for a brand new world with no predefined sound or style. I had the opportunity to write something as big as I could imagine and take the musical idea as far as I could without the constraints of picture or fear of overpowering the listener. It was very freeing and remains one of my favorite pieces I’ve written.
How long did it take you overall to get a finalized score for ‘The Chosen’ that you were happy with?
From the initial concept to the final orchestral mix I think it took about 5 months. The piece was originally going to be two and a half minutes long but they liked what I did so much they had me extend it to five minutes. We went through a few different versions though it didn’t change much from the first version.
The funny thing is when I first wrote the piece, It was very different than what I had intended to write and even more different than what they had asked me to write. I never planned to put a driving drum part in it but there it was. Sometimes inspiration has a mind of its own so when I first sent the piece I was afraid it was going to be wrong for the game and that they wouldn’t like it. It’s not the first that has happened, either. My best work seems to happen when I push myself outside of the familiar and comfortable.
You had a lot of positive feedback when you created this score, were you proud with how it turned out?
One of the biggest compliments I got about the score was when I was in China. Someone came up to me and they said they couldn’t believe that the music hadn’t been written by a Chinese composer. I set out to write something authentic and while a good amount of my voice remains, it means a lot to know that it has moved people on both sides of the world.
The real story behind the score though is a personal one. My father was diagnosed with terminal cancer right before I started working on it and it became the last opportunity I had to write something for him, something that honored him and showed him how much he had influenced my both creatively and in life. Looking back now it’s almost like he had been preparing me for this score my entire life. It was an extremely difficult time but I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to write something for him while he was still here. That makes the positive feedback on the score all the more meaningful.
What are your thoughts of composing a theme for a Guild in Revelation Online and bringing out their members traits within the piece you compose?
I love the idea of writing something specifically for the players. I’ve never been involved in a contest like this and it sounds like a lot of fun!
Are you excited to see the entries for the March of the Guilds Contest?
Yes, of course!
Have you played Revelation Online?
I played a little bit of the Chinese version and though I didn’t understand the language, I got lost in the beauty of the world and wandered around for hours. It’s a beautiful world which made it very inspiring to write for.
If yes: If you could be a character in Revelation Online, which class would you play?
I’ve always been drawn to the Blademaster but I would love to try all of the classes.
Do you have any exciting upcoming projects that you can share with our community?
In addition to my ongoing work for Blizzard Entertainment I recently scored a multiplayer survival game called Rend for Frostkeep Studios. The soundtrack features vocals by Einar Selvik of the Norwegian folk group Wardruna and is very different than anything I’ve done before. I hope everyone will check out the game and the score!
And last but not least: Do you have anything to say to those who are entering?
Good luck! I look forward to writing something special just for you!
If you HAVEN’T submitted your entry into the “March of the Guilds” competition… What are you waiting for? This is a once-off opportunity that shouldn’t be missed, so don’t forget to take part before July 16th to be in with a chance of securing a once-in-a-guild-time opportunity.
“Good luck! I look forward to writing something special just for you!” – Neal