Ron Jones is a composer with over 20 years of experience providing scores for TV, film and games. He has been the recipient of numerous awards for both music composition and music production. With music playing more roles than ever before, Ron has turned his attention towards scoring videogames, including providing the scores for both Star Fleet Command and Star Fleet Academy. As games come further to the forefront in the entertainment industry, crossover from existing composers will become more and more important, and more traditional scoring techniques will have to be modified for the unique nature of videogames. GameCritics.com is delighted to discuss some of these issues with Ron Jones.
How did you get involved in composing music?
I started messing around with sound as a kid. Whatever things made sound or were musical I took apart to see how they worked, so we had a lot of broken radios and organs at my house. I could not put them back together, but I sort of learned some ways to make interesting sounds. Around the time I was 12 years old a shift occurred after hearing a big brass and percussion ensemble. As the sound hit me like a wall of bricks, I was hooked. I had to learn how to make that big sound myself. First I got my friends to play my music then eventually the Jazz band, orchestra, choirs and whatever I could find group. There were no arrangers or composers to learn from in my area, so I started taking music theory at the local college while I was still only a high school junior. The more I wrote and heard back, the more I would be excited to write more. I played in the Jazz band in college so I could write for them. My charts helped our band to win many first place awards for the college and several outstanding musician awards for my composing.
After college, I went straight to Los Angeles to study at the Dick Grove School. This place was amazing in that all the teachers where professionals, no one just had gotten a degree as qualifications. These teachers were the real cats. I worked as a copyist while at Groves to help pay the rent. One of the major accounts we copied music for was Hanna-Barbera. I would ask to take the scores and parts to the sessions. While there I heard the music, met the players and discovered that I could do this. So, I started bugging the great music director, Hoyt Curtin in the hallway, during breaks. I told him I could do this and eventually he gave me a shot. I nailed it. It was some Casper cartoon. One of the cues I wrote was a circus march that totally blew them away. So even before I graduated from Grove's I was composing for a major studio. In a short time I could flip through the major networks and hear my music under several shows simultaneously. That was my start.
How did you get involved in composing game soundtracks?
Well, I was minding my own business working on various TV shows when I received a call from a couple of former scoring students I taught in a scoring course at USC graduate school. They were working at a large game company named Interplay and they where looking for someone to score a Star Trek game. Since I had scored Star Trek: The Next Generation for four years they thought I would be perfect to give them that authentic sound.
Do you play any games yourself?
Sometimes I will sit down and play, just to get a feel for what is going on. In my house, my wife and my son are the gamers. My interest is so much in music and particularly, film music that I find it difficult to play most games because the score is sub par or distracting to the point that I can't get involved in the game. It hurts my head as I am a person trained to listen at a high level so my brain locks in on the music and then the rest of the content. It is like I see only the sonic architecture first. I would imagine it is the opposite for most game people. I am interested in what games will become when all the power of cinema combines with the game playing technology. That is going to be a great day. That is why I am involved.
Were there any games that made you sit up and take notice as a composer?
Until recently, I would have answered no, but I have been digging deeply into the game music library and have found some better scores than I thought were out there. A nice one is the score to Metal Gear Solid 2 by composer Harry Gregson-Williams (and others). A bit derivative of some of Hans Zimmer, but crafted well musically.
Did your gaming experience have any impact on how you approached making game soundtracks?
No. I approached the game scores the same way I do on film and TV scores, in that I play the story and support the emotions. The shift came in making the music seamless. In a film the story is linear in that it starts somewhere and ends somewhere. In a game, anything can and does happen. The story changes as the player responds to the game. The hard part of game scoring, I believe, is to design the score so the music can shift easily, yet not draw attention to itself in the process. That is not an easy task.
Let's talk about the process of making a soundtrack for a game. What are the various steps that you go through?
The process involves making appropriate music but that comes as a result of taking care of several other aspects first. I have to first listen to the producers and what they want. These guys have lived with it for a long time, usually years. They can tell you a lot. I have to be a really good listener. Then you take note of everything you can about the game, its story and characters. Next, you ask how you would like the players to feel emotionally and where in the game it should occur. Music functions on an emotional level. Music can help to create or stimulate emotions, so you need to understand what the goal is. With all this information I can begin to write some basic thematic material and come up with a style or genre that most helps to support the goals of the game. With the specific information I have collected I can direct my composer brain to come up with the right music.
Most game producers pick the composer in a typecast way. They find a rock guy or an orchestral guy. I am far more eclectic in my styles. I can score in any bag possible. Some people think of me as an orchestral composer, others a Jazz guy, others think I am avante-guard, some think I do songs, and some think I only do animation music. They are all right, but I do many styles and kinds of scoring. I do whatever is right for the project. This is how I have been trained and how I work. Being able to score in many ways makes it hard for people to label me. So what? I have worked with the best and I know my craft inside and out. I am proud of being able to score in diverse ways. It beats getting stuck in a loop, doing the same thing over and over.
How do you feel about the modern reality of music in video games, where pre-recorded sound is practically all you see, as opposed to the early years, when composers had to rely on on-board sound chips with very limited capabilities?
Well, it sure improves things when you can hear the music as the composer intended rather than output through a crappy substitute for the real thing. Who wants to go back to those days? I don't.
When you were working on the Star Trek games, what did you do to try and make the games 'feel' like the show? Did you concentrate mostly on instrumentation or themes?
Yes to all the above. The Producers needed to create the same feel for the games as people had associated with the Star Trek films and TV shows. There was a standard of quality that had to be achieved. That was why they asked me to work on the score. I knew how to get that sound and feel because I worked on the show. They had the rights to use the Star Trek music themes and I did use them a bit, but each title I scored for Interplay needed new themes. I created a whole new set of themes, but scored them in a similar style and texture as the original scores. The players could say, "Great, this is Star Trek, but wow, there are some new themes here". There were new characters and situations. This demanded some new material.
You've only worked on license-based games that have a solid foundation of past work to draw on, but also a stylistic bent that can't be easily deviated from. Are you interested in doing scores for non-licensed games and what kind of options would that open up to you?
Yes, I am very interested in creating a sonic world from the ground up. I am still scoring projects for TV and film, but I am trying to get more projects in the interactive game genre. I feel that traditional TV and film are becoming very stale. There has not been a significant shift in film making in recent times except in the digital/technological area. The revolution is only in the tools that are used, not in the structure. Non-linear forms like games are where the new things are coming.
Also, very important is the role of the Internet. This is and will be the most powerful platform of this new century. Why? Because of its availability and access. Producers can create content free of Hollywood. Anyone can say, "let's make a movie today" and upload it for the world to see. That is power. We will see rebel games emerging that will be done by small independent studios that will challenge the big corporations. It is already happening. This makes for greater expression, creativity and artistic growth. Everything is rapidly blurring; soon there will be no difference between a movie and a game – they will be part of each other.
What are some of the difficulties behind composing for a game as opposed to television or film? Is it necessary to score shorter pieces in order to account for the fact that the player will control the tempo of the game, rather than a constant flow?
It is not just the various lengths of cues; it is how music shifts from scenario to scenario. You have to design the score to have an overall unity, yet cover the various shifts, which the player initiates. You have to compose music but be very aware of how rhythm, key relationships, orchestral color and melodic content will work as you move around the game environment.
Now that we've covered what's harder about composing for games, what's easier? Or better yet, what opportunities do you have when composing for a game as opposed to film or television?
Well, music has not been a creative force yet in games. Music functions as sonic wallpaper for the most part. People seem to be happy if a score just basically works with the picture. They figure the player is not really listening, they are playing the game. People are listening and will react to the stimulus they are presented with. Why make the visuals appear realistic? People find realism cool; it stimulates the brain to think the game might be real. This raises the effect in the player. For music to play a role creatively, the producers need to think differently than they have about music. You can't just slap it in there if you want to get maximum effect, you have to plan and design with it at the beginning. Also, you have to use a composer that has a good imagination and feels confident in breaking the rules. If you fear being different or failing, you will play it safe and not take a new road. Music is not a player yet, but eventually someone will figure it out (let's hope).
What role should music play in a game? Recently there have been games that use music very sparingly, only at tense emotional moments. Are you comfortable with that kind of methodology behind game music or do you prefer a more constant backdrop of music?
Less is more. More is more. It is a tricky balance finding the right places and key moments. When they write the story or script, the writers need to give music a place. Music should be used for a reason. Most music is filler and just there to distract. Music when used more intuitively can have a very powerful role, one that engages the player, not treat him or her like an idiot.
Do you think more mainstream composers will become interested in doing game soundtracks in the future?
You know, it seems like we can see what is coming, but I think it is going to shock us all. TV and film are like museum pieces. Many games are passe' also. Composers are a funny group. They are not the popular people at parties. They are sonic followers. Only a few step out of the accepted groove into a creative area. Some, like myself are turning our sails to catch the wind from this new medium. I think it is neat now, but will shock the world with what is coming. I want to be a part of it. It is exciting in a way because it challenges what entertainment is and what it will be. Working in TV today is like playing with a corpse. Games are like a child taking its first steps. Where would you like to be?
Do you have any other game-related project in the works currently? Are you interested in doing more composing for games?
I am not working on any games currently. I am just studying the genre, and creating new demos. The game producers are spread out all over the world and are insulated. It is a full time job just trying to talk to these people. They don't want to talk about music until it is time to slap some sonic wallpaper into their game. I think dialogue with composers would help a lot. So I stay frosty working in film and TV stuff while I wait for some game producer to call me. It's like being a fireman. You always have to be ready to put out a fire.
Thanks for taking the time to talk to us.
Sure. Thank you for asking such good and insightful questions.