Interview with Knut Haugen - Winner HMMA 2011

Earlier this month, Knut Avenstroup Haugen won the award for Best Song in a Video Game at the Hollywood Music in Media Awards for The Coast of Ardashir from the magnificent soundtrack from the Age of Conan: Unchained adventure pack The Savage Coast of Turan. Here is an interview with the composer.


What were your inspirations for the soundtrack to Age of Conan - Savage Coast of Turan?

Before I started composing the music, I spent some time studying Persian traditional music. Persia is of course the real world equivalent to Turan. The score is purely orchestral, but the rythms, scales/melodies and harmonies are all based on Iranian folk music. At the same time I didn’t want to stray to far from the original Age of Conan score and the Conan musical legacy in general. I wanted the player to feel that this new music belongs in the same musical realm as the rest of the game. The Persian stylistic elements have been fused with a very traditional orchestral approach, but the foundation is Persian and is definitely audible in the end result.

How closely do you work with the game developers to get the right sound?

Usually we sit down at the beginning of a project to discuss what kind of sound would be appropriate for the game. The developers have an opinion about what they would like, but they are also open to my input. At this point I will already have done some research to be able to contribute creatively to the discussion. After we have agreed on a musical approach, I go to my studio and work out a few sketches to bring back for further discussion. At this point there might be need for adjustments, but when the developers approve, I will continue on the same track and bring back sketches regularly. When all tracks have been approved I move on to orchestration, recording and mix.

What type of musicians did you use for this soundtrack?

 This score is quite “oldschool” in the sense that I only use standard orchestral instruments: There are no ethnic soloists or layers of electronics etc. with the exception of the vocal soloist I have used on two of the tracks. All the “ethnicity” of the music is emulated with standard western orchestral instruments. Also the vocals, performed by the wonderful Aubrey Ashburn, has been approached in a traditional way – as an integral part of the orchestra rather than an artificial addition layered on top of it, which is the most common way of doing it nowadays. In my opinion this very traditional approach to scoring suits the Conan IP very well.
Music in gaming is becoming more and more important, can you outline some of the changes you have seen since you started making music for games?
When I started out as a game composer not so many years ago, most games had scores recorded with sampled instruments. Only the biggest triple-A titles used live orchestras. Over the last few years this has changed a lot: Now almost every orchestral score has been recorded live. As production budgets are growing bigger, more and more money is being spent on music. This is partially due to the expectation of quality improvement in all parts of the production, but I also believe the developers have come to realize how much a good score can add to a game in terms of realism and immersion.

Another consequence of the general improvement in game quality and growing budgets, is that A-list film composers, who previsouly had no interest in games, now start doing game music. It has been going on for some years and we’re seeing more of it all the time, so competition is definitely growing a lot tougher every year. Composers like Hanz Zimmer, Harry Gregson-Williams, Danny Elfman, Howard Shore and Christopher Young – to name only some of the biggest names – have all done game music. Some people argue that these composers don’t understand the game medium as well as dedicated game composers, but I think that is underestimating them. Soon there will be no reason for game developers not to hire the very best they can get. The first generation of game composers, who typically worked in-house and did both sound and music, was replaced by dedicated composers some years back. Now, this second generation of composers are about to go extinct unless they can start producing scores to rival those of the film heavy-weights.