Interview: Composer Walter Mair on The List and Killzone: Mercenary

Ivor Novello nominated & Telly award winning composer Walter Mair is the creator of scores for feature films and AAA video game titles, like Killzone. In this interview he talks gear, tech and more.  

Let's talk about your musical background - where did it all start for you? What music inspired you to start composing?

I started learning music from an early age. First it was the recorder, followed by the trumpet which got me introduced to performing music. My parents listened to classical music a lot and there happened to be a piano in my room, so I began playing along to tunes on the radio. I later decided to improve my piano skills so I took lessons from the age of 12 onwards, beginning with the classic composers like Mozart and moving on to jazz and improvisations. 


I got my first computer when I was 14 years old and started exploring electronic music using ‘Tracker’ software that was available at that time. These programs were very limited and I bought my first synthesizer, a Korg MS-20 followed by a Korg workstation to cover the more basic sounds. An Akai S1000 sampler opened up an entirely new concept of sampling and manipulating sounds. Shortly thereafter, I started producing electronic music. I was a big fan of Aphex Twin, Squarepusher and Massive Attack whose music influenced me a lot. 

There was a program on the radio where they would play selected soundtracks and I listened to an amazing track by Angelo Badalamenti, a blend of orchestral and synthesized instruments. This soundtrack had me totally hooked and I decided to study music composition at Vienna University and continued my studies in Salzburg where I graduated in music composition for motion pictures. 


How did music for film and game become your passion and career?

After university I joined an audio production studio in Frankfurt where I got to work on my first movie. Herold and Besser Studios handled all sound postproduction and music for the film Alone in the Dark. This was the first time I got to see the whole process: sound design, ADR recording with Christian Slater and Tara Reid, and final dub in a Dolby theatre. My music was recorded by an 80-piece orchestra and I still remember the moment when I first listened to the music in the studio, this was an extremely satisfying moment and it was clear to me that this was the way forward. From then on, I wanted to focus on music for picture. In 2006 I decided to move to London and open my own studio in Soho (London).

"There is no real right or wrong, it is the composer’s very own way of interpreting the brief and coming up with musical ideas."

From 80-piece choirs to intimate digital productions… In terms of the creative and production process, what are the biggest challenges you've encountered?

One of the biggest challenges for every project are the first few meetings with the director/producer where it is all about finding a common language that enables the team to talk in more or less musical terms. Some directors might have a very clear idea of what the music should sound like; others leave it entirely to the composer to come up with the first sketch. This is a very exciting stage as there is no real right or wrong, it is the composer’s very own way of interpreting the brief and coming up with musical ideas.

Electronic scores are mostly easier to judge, as by their nature what you hear is what you get. Orchestral tracks require a lot more time to produce. These days directors expect to hear a MIDI-mockup very close to the final mix. This makes it very important for us composers to work efficiently with a good sounding orchestral template that contains as many playing techniques as possible. 

After all, music is a very subjective matter and briefs can change whilst working on a project for a longer period. To stay flexible and always provide the director/producer with sufficient choices makes both their and my life a lot easier.

"Electronic scores are mostly easier to judge, as by their nature what you hear is what you get."

What has been your most enjoyable score/production, and why?

I have to say that they are all equally challenging and fun to work on. Usually, the best project is the last one as the memory is still fresh. In my case this would be Killzone: Mercenary which was an absolute pleasure to work on. The combination of electronic and orchestral sounds was an amazing brief that enabled me to combine my two alter egos, classical and electronic music. I also got to record a lot of instruments live and either leave the sound pure and organic or process the instruments afterwards and run them through chains of effects and outboard gear.


Some composers find it hard to watch their finished work. Is this the same for you, for example with The List, Seamonsters, Alone in the Dark?

I think as soon as the project is finished you still have all the memory of what musical transitions could have been improved or what sections could have been mixed differently. The reality is, no one will notice and I like revisiting older scores. Music that is a few years old was written in a different mindset and at a different stage of my life reflecting both my personal life as well as my professional skills. When enough time has passed, you forget the small flaws that once bothered you and can then enjoy watching the film.

"For me the entire writing process evolves around a visual trigger."

Killzone Mercenary - not for the faint of heart, but either way you'll enjoy Walter's soundtrack!

Killzone Mercenary - not for the faint of heart, but either way you'll enjoy Walter's soundtrack!


One of this year's biggest game releases is Killzone: Mercenary which you composed. Can you tell us about the process composing for games and how it differs for you (workflow) compared to other linear media.

For me the entire writing process evolves around a visual trigger. This can be a still image, a short clip of a video game, or a sequence of a movie. As long as I have a visual image and a story what this particular scene is about, the writing process doesn’t differ at all. Movies and cinematics in a game are both the same and the musical requirements only change for in-game music. 

A lot of time, the player sneaks through corridors trying to remain unseen from the enemies, or he/she is engaged in a fight which might vary in duration depending on the player’s skills and intentions. Some might want to search each drawer in a spaceship hoping to find a bonus item, whilst other players just blast their way through corridors. This is when the musical requirements change a lot and the composer has to write tracks that must be loopable. At the same time these tracks should have many different sections and show a lot of variation so that the player doesn’t pick up on the repeating sections. 


Are you a gamer? Does it help being putting yourself in the role of a gamer when composing music for games?

Work schedules don’t always allow me to play games. But I am in the lucky position to be able to call playing video games ‘research’ and I try to play games regularly. My approach to scoring a video game is not that different to that from scoring movies. I picture myself in the situation of the main protagonist and try to tell the musical story in the same way he/she would experience the events on screen. This engages the player and puts them into the front seat of the game, making him become one with the protagonist. 


What tools do you use in the production process? e.g. DAW, plug-ins, etc.

My main sequencer is Logic Pro and I started using it at a time when Logic was still owned by Emagic (Logic version 3). I am so used to it that I handle all my work in Logic. The center of my setup is 2 Mac Pros which are both maxed out with RAM. One Mac Pro hosts Logic and some plug-ins whilst the other one runs Vienna Ensemble Pro 5 and hosts the majority of my orchestral template. This includes a vast selection of sample libraries including VSL Cube, East West Hollywood Strings+Brass+Woodwinds, Symphobia 1+2, Los Angeles Scoring Strings (LASS), Cinesamples and countless libraries by 8dio, Tonehammer, Spectrasonics, Sample Logic, Heavyocity etc. For mix and mastering, I use Universal Audio’s UAD and Ozone 5, Trash 2, Alloy 2 by iZotope. My list of plug-ins is very extensive and contains many creative effects like Stutter Edit and Sound Toys.

"Some Logic sessions can get quite large especially those that require a full orchestral mock-up. A track count of 300 and more occurs frequently and I always want to be in control of such large setups."

My main monitor speakers are Focal SM9, the audio interface is an Apogee Symphony I/O and a little Mackie mixer handles premixes of my external effect units and synths.

Some Logic sessions can get quite large especially those that require a full orchestral mock-up. A track count of 300 and more occurs frequently and I always want to be in control of such large setups. It is very important to me to have sufficient visual feedback at all times. This is handled by 2x23” Apple displays, a hardware controller by Smart AV ‘Tango’ and Lemur on the iPad. A 46” Sony Bravia TV takes care of picture playback from my DAW.


What about your famously large analog and digital synth collection? Can you tell us about how you've employed these in your recent productions - and any techniques you'd like to share for creating the dramatic, epic and cinematic feel present in your soundtrack to Killzone: Mercenary.

When I first dived into production of electronic music there weren’t that many soft synths around and the computers weren’t powerful enough to run them properly. So I started buying synths like the Korg MS-20 but over the years, a lot of my production tools moved into the Mac. I still own a good selection of synths and outboard which I use regularly, e.g. Moog Voyager, Access Virus TI Polar, Clavia Nord Modular G2, Moog Slim Phatty etc. In most of my projects I use at least one, if not all of these synths. It is just so much more fun to tweak knobs and faders and program my very own sounds in such a creative way. 

I also combine older technology with current devices. For Killzone, I programmed many synth sounds from scratch and triggered the Moog with an arpeggio app on my iPad. It all stays neatly tempo-synched with my sequencer and allows me to focus on the creative side where I would add digital and analog effects to beef up or sometimes even ‘destroy’ the sound.

A lot of the dramatic and cinematic feel in my music comes from layering sounds and mixing synths with live recordings. Always on the lookout for new sounds and ways to make a project stand out, I came up with a concept to sonically brand both campaigns of Killzone. The first half of the game we play on the side of the ISA who are more techy. Their overall sound is more synth and beat-driven. 

"I modified a cello by hammering metal tubes into it. The tubes were filled with shrapnel which provided the instrument with an overtone heavy sound with lots of resonances and distortion."


Halfway through the game, the player swaps sides and joins the former enemies. The darker and more ominous temper of the Helghast had to be reflected in the music as well. I started experimenting with some more unusual sounds and decided to record classic instruments in more extreme ways, utilizing extended playing techniques. A cello would be played with the wooden side of the bow instead of the horsehair, or I would replace the classic bow with a metal bow which created some very interesting sounds. I also modified a cello by hammering metal tubes into the corpus of the instrument. The tubes were filled with shrapnel which provided the instrument with an overtone heavy sound with lots of resonances and distortion. I did similar experiments with a violin and many percussion instruments such as bass drums, snare drums, cymbals and man-sized drums. When I started mixing these recordings with regular instruments, the overall sound changed a lot. The tracks began sounding more synthetic but still had this gritty, raw and organic sound to it.


Are there any projects you're currently working on you can talk about?

I have just finished the music for a movie The List which premieres later this year. The film stars Sienna Guillory who plays Jill Valentine in the Resident Evil movies. There’s another film, and a game that I can’t talk about right now.

"Composers are being given less time to complete a project but the producers demand a higher level of quality."


Are there any tips you can give to musicians looking to break into the audio for game/film area?

Know what you want and learn your tools to be ready when the phone rings. In my career I was in the lucky position to work on a variety of different projects with different musical briefs. Even though they were exactly what I was looking for, all of these projects required slightly different skills: from recording ethnic instruments to mixing and mastering myself. Especially in the beginning of one’s career when it is more likely that you will work on smaller budgets, you have to know the entire process and feel comfortable handling all things music.

These days you don’t need to work in one specific place to connect with game developers and film directors which makes it easier for us to work with people on the other side of the globe. But at the same time, this increases competition. What I notice more and more is that composers are being given less time to complete a project, but the producers demand a higher level of quality. Gone are the times of simple layouts, what the director and producers want are fully orchestrated and great sounding demos as close to the final piece as possible. 

Also when sending out showreels and emails, make sure to know at least the name of the person and personalize your message. Nothing screams mass-mailing louder than a generic “Hello, I am a composer …”

Web: http://www.waltermair.com

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/waltermair

Killzone: http://www.killzone.com/

Rounik is the Executive Editor for Ask.Audio & macProVideo. He's built a crack team of professional musicians and writers to create one of the most visited online resources for news, review, tutorials and interviews for modern musician and producer. As an Apple Certified Trainer for Logic Pro Rounik has taught teachers, professional... Read More

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