An Interview with Robert Euvino
Stronghold’s sound and effects composer
by Lord Tigger from Sword & Pistol
The following is an interview Robert Euvino, the composer and sound FX god for Stronghold, was kind enough to participate in.
Ok, who are you and what do you do?
My name is Robert Euvino (pronounced like the beginning of Eugene), and I currently reside in upstate NY about a half hour out of Woodstock. I do a lot of things, but to keep you from calling in the ‘tangent police’ I’ll try to keep focused on the audio end of things. I own and operate a post production recording facility where I spend most of my time composing music and designing sound effects for a variety of applications.
Where did you study music?
On a formal level I received a degree in music at the State University at Albany, where I studied music theory and composition with a concentration on electronic music technology. From there I moved out to Long Island NY and attended a small school called A.R.T.I. (Audio Recording Technology Institute) to learn the engineering side of things. Eventually I found myself teaching college courses on MIDI technology for NY Tech while taking on any small composition jobs I could get my hands on.
How long have you been in this industry?
I’ve been supporting myself producing audio for approximately ten years, but this encompasses many venues other than just the video game industry.
What did you do before this?
Ok, this might generate a raised eyebrow or two. While developing my skills and building up the studio I had my own business called “Reptile Rob and the Party Animals”. Basically it was a one-man show involving live exotic animals, most of which were reptiles (no, not that kind of show !!). To be honest, it started out as a joke to possibly help support my lifelong expensive hobby raising and breeding exotic reptiles. Much to my own surprise the show became very popular and within a short period of time I found myself working fulltime loading my truck with everything most people try to avoid – alligators, rattlesnakes, 18-foot pythons, armadillos, arachnids, skunks etc. and traveling all over. My audiences varied in age and scope and included children’s birthday parties, school presentations, camps, museums, scouts, promotional business events?.I even did a wedding ! It was a fun way to make a living and I have enough stories to write a book (i.e. snake ate my parrot once. Expensive meal. One of my large lizards made a dramatic escape during an outdoor show and I made a complete fool of myself chasing him into the woods and cutting my face up?.never saw him again. Kids loved it. Parents booked me for the following year. Got bit on the head by a Bobcat. Stop me?here I go !)
Ambient sound is a given but how important is the music in a game?
I suppose this depends on several factors such as the type of game and the quality of music. Many gamers tend to shut off in-game music as they find it is either annoying or distractive. Others like to be able to concentrate on the sound effects only, and some even wish to listen to their own favorite tunes instead of what is being force fed to them. Also, because all game music will inevitably repeat itself quite often it can grow tiresome quickly. Personally I think music has the potential to be tremendously important to an overall game experience but it really comes down to how well it is conceived and how it is balanced with the many other audible and visual cues which are all fighting to be seen/heard.
What do you try to accomplish when you do a muscial score? What’s the goal?
Well, the initial and most obvious goal is to write music that fits the genre of the game. This is sometimes easier said than done depending on how period specific a title is. Stronghold was what I consider to be a medium sized target. It required me to arrange using certain instruments we typically associate with the middle ages, even if historically they aren’t accurate. And there are several harmonic and rhythmic rules that I found to be important in order to capture what I was looking for (in some of the folk tunes in Stronghold I kept harmonies very simple, consistently avoiding the seventh or ninth of a chord, which if I were writing in a jazz style would be absolutely essential). But once I found a slightly ‘medieval’ sound I had a lot of free room to play around, concentrating on creating a palette of music to cover the gamut of different emotions experienced throughout the game such as suspense, serenity, triumph, happiness, chaos etc.
To put this in a relative perspective, Caesar 3 was a much smaller target to hit. Although I knew Caesar needed a lot of horns and fanfares, I found it more challenging to make things sound ‘Roman’. Often times I would begin writing and then when I listened back I realized I had made something sound much more like an American fanfare (Copeland) as opposed to getting the cliché sound of the Coliseum made famous by Hollywood. At that point I would reanalyze similar work by other composers to hear exactly what it was that gave their music that distinct sound, and then go back to the drawing board. Ultimately my objective is to include enough clichés to make the genre obvious, while at the same time preserving some of my own personal style within that genre.
Another goal important to me is to be sure I don’t overwrite the scores. Again this will only lead people to shut the music off. I know everything I write will be repeated over and over, so I’d rather my music disappear in the background than to have it fighting for the player’s attention. If I were composing a score to be performed live in front of an audience my approach would certainly be a bit more selfish, but for music to work in a game it needs to act like more of a team player. It’s amazing to me how our psychological interpretation of music changes dramatically depending on how many ways our attention is divided. For example, if I proudly played a single sustained cello note for someone they would probably not be all too impressed with my ‘masterpiece’. However, when that same single sustained note is played in conjunction with a player’s mind as they rush to create enough troops while feeding their people and scavenging for resources, it can work wonders in creating just the right amount of tension before an attack. I guess the real challenge is in knowing when to play that particular note.
Is there a possibility of too much music in a game?
I don’t think there can be too much music in a game, unless of course it’s just lousy music. I do believe however that music can be played too often within a game. Many games are programmed to play music constantly during gameplay, and this is probably a leading cause for players to turn it off. Dynamics is everything. The silence between the music (and even the rests between the notes themselves) is just as important as the music itself in establishing an environment that needs to be ever changing. Our ears acclimate quite quickly to sound, and it’s important to vary things up regularly in order to upset that balance after time. When a piece of music fades in after a period of silence it has an effect on the player that wouldn’t be possible without that initial period of silence. This simple implementation of scattering the music can be a great tool to help keep things interesting as well as to foreshadow upcoming events. One of the most frustrating aspects of this work is the knowledge that your music is going to be heard repeatedly. I almost hate delivering the first piece of music for a game, because I know the other developers will hear it constantly for the next year and will probably end up hating me for it (sorry guys). In my opinion the more music in a game the better, as it just means there will be that much less repeat. But even a game with a lot of good music must still implement careful use of dynamics
What games do you think had/have the best music in them?
Unfortunately I don’t have the time to play a lot of games, so I know there are many titles that are worthy of mention that won’t get mention by me. I was very impressed with Homeworld, and I also liked some of the music written for the Final Fantasy series. I thought Quake 2 was pretty hip, although I found it clashed a bit with the sound effects at times. The Tom Clancy games have some sparse yet very professional music. Also, the sleeper hit Battlezone was scored very well.
What’s your favorite piece of music?
Ok, I don’t want to sound like a wimp on this question, but I don’t have one favorite. There are simply too many amazing styles and moods of music to lump them together and then just choose one piece. I think the next question is a better representation of what gets me off.
Who influences you for music?
Everyone from A-Z ! It all depends on what phase I’m going through at the time. When I was a kid I was most impressed by musicians that were known for their virtuosity – Keith Emerson, keyboardist from Emerson Lake & Palmer?. Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, Bud Powell, Charlie Parker, Jimmy Smith were all legendary jazz cats that either inspired me to practice harder or else made me want to cut my own fingers off. Pat Metheny, Joe Pass, Wes Montgomery, Jan Hammer, Jimi Hendrix, the Dixie Dregs, Jeff Beck, Larry Carlton?..too many to list. As I matured a bit I began to see the genius behind the likes of Bill Evans, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Frank Zappa, Talking Heads, Led Zeppelin, The Beatles blah blah blah. Pink Floyd was a big influence not so much because they were phenomenal players (they weren’t) but because their music was as much about sound as it was about the notes being struck, and their production was way ahead of its time. I mean David Gilmour could play a single sustained note for 30 seconds, and it doesn’t sound boring?.. amazing ! Oh, did I leave out those really old guys like Bach, Chopin, Stravinsky, Holst, Brahms, Mozart?..more blah blahs. And then there are some newer artists that have impressed me?.Nine Inch Nails, Tool, Tori Amos, Tracy Chapman???Man, this is way too hard. Maybe I’ll approach it from the other end. I don’t listen to Brittney Spears. I just look at her. Ok, I confess. I liked Kiss a lot when I was a little kid.
When you make the music for a game, do you approach it like a soundtrack for a movie or is there more to it?
Both film and game soundtracks are very similar in that the music needs to fit what is being visually presented. The biggest difference between the two is that a movie is in a completely linear format whereas a game is an interactive experience with no two games ever being identical. A lot of the end results are not only dependant on what I write, but how well the programmers code the system that incorporates these pieces. In Stronghold I was lucky enough to have a great programming team willing to put in the extra effort to make some of the soundtrack somewhat interactive. With a game, a composer has to think of creative ways to stretch the usefulness of a limited amount of music. The most common approach is to write a piece that will loop onto itself, allowing the piece to play as long as is needed. Things get quite a bit more complicated when you try to create pieces that will not only loop back into themselves, but will be able to stream smoothly into another piece. I have to keep a close eye on making sure I match not only the tempo and key signature of related pieces, but the actual instrumentation has to be similar enough where the cut points aren’t so obvious. The more pieces you have the crazier the map becomes. Eventually you have to organize a set of rules which denotes which pieces can successfully stream into which other pieces, which pieces can loop to themselves, and which pieces are to be played as stand alone tunes. Once this map is drawn up we then have to attach variables to the pieces, which will govern when the music should take a certain branch. For example, if your army is beginning to win a battle, we might want to start playing triumphant music. But if the piece that is currently playing doesn’t have a smooth branch into that triumphant music we must take a detour into a piece that will enable us to eventually get to that triumphant tune. However, by the time the detour piece finishes playing, your army may have actually started to lose the battle, which would force the code to reevaluate what music should play. The ideal result is for an appropriate type of music to be playing at all times without any obvious interruptions, but there are always some flaws because of the almost infinite number of possibilities. We only incorporated this type of system for some of the battle music in Stronghold, but I’d like an entire soundtrack to work along these lines. It’s just very time consuming to think and plan out these other things while at the same time coming up with interesting (hopefully) music.
Without getting up to cover your butt, what CD is in your player right now?
Well, I’ve got two cd players that have something in them?.
- Bach:Materpieces for Pipe Organ.
- Me’Shell NdgOcello “Bitter”
Were you solely responsible for the sound FX as well as music in Stronghold?
What would you rather do, FX or music? Why?
My true passion lies in the music, but I enjoy doing the sound design as it is also a creative art, adds variety to my day, and allows me to get away from whatever I’m composing for a little while. Also, doing both enables me to really make one compliment the other. Sometimes when a composer and a sound designer are working independently their work fights for the ear. Because I do both I know exactly what needs to take center stage when. I’ll sometimes compose a piece that specifically leaves room for the sound effects that I know will be occurring at the same time. If I had to choose only one I would certainly write music, but in the end I think the most seamless results can be obtained by doing both.
Have you worked on anything we would recognize or that’s commercially available like CDs or movies?
I’m pretty much a nobody! Most of my work has been for multimedia companies of some sort or another. In total I’ve probably scored about 14-15 published cd rom titles, and one title won the New Media Invision award for best educational software title in 1998. I’ve done work on a few commercials (recently did some sound for the new Mr. Potato Head toy lol ) as well as some radio, but nothing is as satisfying as the jobs where I have the opportunity to write full length tunes. I was contracted to compose the soundtrack for Caesar 3, but I didn’t do the sound design nor was I in charge of how all the audio was implemented. I’ve also acted as a consultant for Grammy winning producer Jack Douglas, who has produced albums for John Lennon and Aerosmith as well as some other very high profile acts. I plan on producing an album of my own within the next couple of years, but that often gets swept aside as I write tunes for other people.
Peanut butter: creamy or chunky?
Chunky. Creamy does virtually nothing for me audibly.
Do you play a musical instrument?
My main instrument is the keyboard?piano, organ and synthesizer, and I also play a mean Jews Harp. I can cover a lot of bases with the synthesizers and samplers, but I always incorporate other musicians into my music. Music is about interaction, and if my budget allows for it I try to combine as many talents as I can.
What’s the weirdest instrument you’ve ever used for music?
I guess there’s a fine line between what is considered to be a musical instrument and what is just an object that produces a cool sound. I’ve got a few exotic instruments and although I haven’t a clue as to their name or origins they make some very odd sounds. I also have a hanging wire sculpture that makes an incredible eerie yet musical sound if you tap it with a pen or pencil?. great for sci-fi stuff. My music sometimes blurs the distinction between actual notes and sound, so I’m not sure if I would classify certain sound sources as instruments or just props. I’ll use anything if it gives me a unique sound.
What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever used for sound effects?
My pet pig named Snerch made some incredible noises, much more than the typical oinks. She would create these demonic sounding howls and grunts that sounded as though she were being tortured. Of course I would never have hurt her, but if you heard this stuff you wouldn’t believe me. All I had to do was put her food bowl a few feet in front of her and hold her back from it for a second or two. Instant demon! I recorded a lot of her (before I had her adopted) and would then play around with pitch shifting effects, reversals, and layering to create some phenomenal dinosaur sounds for a cdrom that was published by Westwind Media (The Dinosource 1993).
Do you play video games much? What do you play?
I’ve played video games since the advent of the original text only adventures. My first computer was an Apple II, and I was a big fan of the Ultima and Wizardry series. Now I don’t play nearly as much as I’d like to just because I’m too busy helping to make them. I buy a fair number of games to keep up on what the industry is producing, but I don’t have enough time to become accomplished in most. Of course I’m playing Stronghold now, but believe it or not I’m still hooked on an oldie. I play the sleeper hit Battlezone (by Activision). It has an incredible strategy mode as well as a deathmatch mode and the sound is very well done. No one shall beat me in a bomber? although I dare anyone to come online and give it your best shot! I suppose I’d rather get real good at only one or two games as opposed to sucking at many games. I’ve done some of the major first person shooters (Quake, Unreal etc) as well as Rainbow Six. Picked up Counter Strike but I’m not very good. I may grab Ghost Recon soon.
What you are doing, is this an actual steady career or do you have your eyes out for something bigger?
Bigger than this ?!?! How could that be possible lol. I’m never sure exactly what I’ll be doing next, but I’m certain it will be involving sound. Honestly I’m always a bit torn as to which direction to head. Firefly is a wonderful company with what looks to be a bright future, so I may be moving forward with them. I have friends who work in advertising, and although that arena is always tempting it is also a bit of a double-edged sword. Financially it can be very rewarding but at the same time on an artistic level I prefer to work on projects which require full length scores as opposed to 00:30 and 01:00 spots. At this point the game market is pretty diverse and exciting, especially now that machines are capable of spitting out high quality audio. Time shall tell?.
How many reptiles do you own? What are they?
I’ve dwindled my collection down to a manageable 9 snakes. At one point when I was doing shows I had as many as 60 snakes, not to mention the rest of the wildlife. My only large reptile at this point is a 12 foot Burmese Python named Bernice. I’ve had her since 1978 and she is just a gentle giant. I also have a Monocled Indian Cobra named Brilliance, and then several other smaller snakes. Oh yes, I also have a cat named McSack. He is hideously ugly, and twice as obnoxious. But he makes these noises unlike any other animal I’ve ever heard. This cat is not of this earth. You just can’t understand until you hear him. Maybe I’ll send Lord Tigger a short recording of him, as it’s impossible to describe with words. As always, it’s all about the sound.