Composer Tommy Tallarico Talks Video Game Audio [Spotted on Campus]

Tommy Tallarico has been an advocate for the role of music in video games since the mid-90s, were he got his start composing the audio for classic 16-bit era titles like Earthworm Jim, Disney’s Aladdin, Cool Spot, and more. Tallarico has continued to evolve with the industry, developing the soundtracks for dozens of other franchises (Unreal, Metroid Prime, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater), as well as co-creating the concert spectacle Video Games Live with fellow composer Jack Wall.

Video Games Live has been touring annually since 2005, offering a multimedia celebration of video game music from the beginning of the art form to today. The show features a live band, choir, and video montages that bring classic soundtracks from franchises like The Legend of Zelda, Final Fantasy, God of War to life on stage.

During the tour’s stop in Central Florida, Tallarico visited Full Sail campus to give a lecture for students about the changing role of audio in gaming, and we spoke to him before the event for a quick look at the past and present of his influential career.

FS: Even an early game like Space Invaders is a great example of what audio can add to the overall atmosphere. What were some of the early games that made you realize the power music had to enhance a player’s experience?

TT: Space Invaders was a really important soundtrack because the audio is affecting your physical makeup. I spoke to the guy who created it and he told me they did studies with the audio where it purposely starts it slow, and then when it got faster your heart would actually beat faster because of the sound – the audio is affecting your physical makeup.

I also remember watching Pac-Man, and at the beginning there’s that song that plays. It was the first time I remember hearing music that was catchy and meant something to the game, and I took notice of that.

FS: In the early days of your career was it hard to convince studios just how important the music was to a game, and why they should invest resources in it?

TT: Oh yeah, that was my mission because it was an afterthought. Back then at the end of the project there was no money, no time, and no space on the cartridge for audio. This is something which is 1/3 of the experience – there’s the graphics, the design, and then audio – but it certainly wasn’t getting treated like that, and that’s one thing I wanted to change from the very beginning.

What I did was ask the programmers to give me an ungodly amount of cartridge space so I could show them how good it could sound. So eventually I was getting more space than the game, 90% would be the audio – Earthworm Jim, Global Gladiators, The Terminator. I’d use it for voiceovers, sound design, triggers in the music, and bring it all together.

FS: Having done so much with the memory limitations of cartridge-based consoles, what was it like for you as a composer when games switched to the CD format?

TT. When we made the jump, The Terminator (Sega CD) was the first video game ever to feature live guitar. You can listen to it now and it’s just great rock music, but then it was so jarring to anyone who played the game because the music did not match the visuals – the production quality was ahead of the time. I got in screaming matches with people because they said it didn’t sound like a video game, but I was like ‘exactly, this is what they could sound like, and this is what they’re going to sound like in the future.’

FS: The introduction of CDs seemed like such a major leap for your industry, is there anything that came after that made as big of an impact on what you could do?

TT: The next big thing was when the Playstation came around, the programmers were able to develop tools where audio people could actually tweak things in the game. You used to have to put your code in, wait 20 minutes for it to compile, and then realize you had to go back and change it because it was too loud. With these new tools we could literally play the game and turn down the audio in real time, that was huge. You saw the quality go to sounding like movies by the late 90s.

FS: Video Games Live seems like a culmination of your passion for game audio composition, and attending one of these shows not only gives a new appreciation for the music, but enriches the actual titles themselves when you go back to play them.

TT: That was my goal. No one had ever done a show like ours ever. When we cover games like Halo, God of War, Final Fantasy I wanted to start with what was originally there in the game, and then pile on top of that in a new way with our musicians. We take a lot of the original samples and work with the composers and trigger those during the show. It’s not traditional and I’m very proud of it.