Part II: Nelson Everhart & Todd Coleman, The music of Wizard 101 (Interview by The Friendly Necromancer)
On Thursday, January 29, 2009, Todd Coleman and Nelson Everhart joined The Friendly Necromancer on a conference call to informally chat about the music of Wizard 101. The following is Part II of the Q&A session.
Friendly: So, as I’m listening to the music, it sounds like the tempo of the menu track is a certain pace, and then you go to the next screen and it seems just a touch faster, and then finally you get into the Wizard City world and it’s again a touch faster. Is that speeding up kind of a psychological thing you did or did it just kind of happen?
Nelson: If there’s anything in the world’s music that seems especially thoughtful or creative, I had nothing to do with it.
Friendly: (laughs) Come on now!
Nelson: (laughs) The first song that was written out of those you mention was the song written for Wizard City. It wasn’t until we were about half way or three quarters of the way through writing all the music that the music for the title screen was written, and it was really guided by how much time you’d expect a player to spend on any particular screen. The screen has an aesthetic, and you need to make sure the music lasts just long enough that the aesthetic gets experienced. So the title music was just inspired by what Todd was feeding me. Didn’t you send me a copy of Army of Darkness for inspiration?
Todd: I think you’re right about that reference, but I think the one that was cool though . . . was that for the Intro sequence? I think it might have been.
Nelson: Yeah, that was really the theme. You wrote about the power and the epic cinematic scope . . .
Todd: Yeah, and in that aesthetic there was that concept of building to a crescendo. We had to go back a couple times and tweak it a little bit. At the time, we’d build the intro and come back and tell Nelson, “Ok, well, we’ve changed the intro sequence now to where the camera starts by pulling out from the spiral and the wizard falls in. We thought it would take about seven seconds, and it ended up being about fifteen, so you need to crescendo at about fifteen seconds.” So we had to go through that kind of iteration a couple times. Because you’d have it in your mind how it was going to unfold and then we’d take it all to Ross, our particle guy, and he would actually build the sequence, and then we’d come back to Nelson and say, “hey, things have changed again.” That factor was very integral to how things turned out.
Todd: I do know that with the Wizard City Commons music, we went around and around a couple times as well. We’d reach a point where the music almost seemed like it was how it would be in the actual game, and then we’d have to rethink it. It was so important because it’s the core central place. It’s the place where your characters would be experiencing the feeling that, I’ve come back home—I’ve gone on a mission—I’ve gone out and I’ve beat some monsters, I’ve solved the quest—now it’s time for me to rest, shop, and collect my rewards. So it had to be light, bright, airy, and yet still have the sense that there’s adventure right around the corner. So it really all started with that song, the Wizard City Commons music. And then after that you had the Ravenwood music. So, you would take that core music and morph the song into something that sounded more like a sanctuary, like a solitary study. And from there, each of the other songs trickled out. The Wizard City commons kind of built the theme music. But the 101 theme music, that actually came out pretty late in the process.
Nelson: Yeah, yeah it did.
Todd: It was a more organic process.
Nelson: Yeah. If you have the choice, it’s nice to write the title music, the menu music, and the Main World theme and then write the other themes from the world by using them as a reference. It’s nice to have that prologue to work from.
Todd: Then everything resonates nicely from one piece to another. You then hear a common thread in every piece of music in the world.
Friendly: Yeah, that’s awesome! See, that was creative and cool!
Friendly: So, Nelson, what is your favorite piece of music for Wizard 101 and why?
Nelson: One of my favorites would be the Wizard City Commons Music. It was the third or fourth thing that I wrote for the game. I had found the instruments that I wanted to use . . . that would create the kind of vibe I was looking for, but the tune just kind of came out one day while I was walking down the street. This melody I had in my head quickened my pace, and I had to get home to write it down.
Nelson: And it had this feeling of an old comfortable village, and I really wanted to get that in there and let it unfold.
Friendly: Awesome. How about you, Todd? What’s your favorite piece of music in the game?
Todd: Obviously the Wizard City Commons music really speaks to me. I also really like the Ravenwood music. It has this nice, reverent, and monastic quality to it. I also, on many levels, love the Krok music! It has an Egyptian theme, but it has a very Indiana Jones Adventure quality to it that I find very exciting. And then some of the most recent stuff from Dragonspyre. It may have a little bit of a harder edge to it, but as far as the world goes, it is haunted and dark with some more molten areas in the game and the music seems to capture that.
Nelson: I really liked the Dragonspyre stuff too. I just thought I only had one choice.
Todd: I could never pick just one to go with.
Friendly: It’s ok, you can choose more than one.
Nelson: The music in this game is mostly geared toward a target audience and is a friendlier, gentler approach to the music where we focus more on fun and not necessarily on some of the darker cinematic elements. So I began writing for Dragonspyre in this way, and they came back and said, “No. No. No. You can write what you want on this one. The music for this world can get a little bigger, a little darker, a little more epic.” They really encouraged me to go outside that for Dragonspyre.
Friendly: Awesome, and it really does sound like what you’re describing in Dragonspyre. It was nicely done.
Todd: Because we came up with a completely desperate environment, it gave us a lot of latitude to do a very different instrumentation and tonality. I’m really proud of Nelson that it came out so coherent and in-tune with the writing.
Friendly: Right! And my personal favorite is the music of Marleybone. For some reason I’m reminded of the Haunted Mansion ride at Disneyland. What was the thinking in that one?
Nelson: One of the first responses upon embarking on the game was there was a sort of thematic, Harry Potter feeling; although, I didn’t really want to take it in that direction. I wanted to do something in our own direction. There was a pull to do this sort of Elizabethan, old world Danny Elfman score. That’s a setting and a sound that everybody is really familiar with. And I did, I kept writing music that sounded like “Gryffindor,” but eventually the music went to a more Victorian, Haunted Halloween sound, especially with the harpsichord that starts to be played there. It creates a setting for a mystery and overall that particular sound really solidifies that world.
Friendly: If it’s ok, if we could switch gears now and talk technical with you, Todd (snaps fingers) not Todd, I mean Nelson sorry. What kind of gear . . .
Nelson: Maybe Todd will have a good answer for you
Friendly: (laughs) What kind of gear do you use to write music Todd?
Todd: Let’s see, I have a crappy set of computer speakers . . .
Friendly: Nice. (groans at his mistake) sorry.
Friendly: No, please, NELSON, please, what do you use for composing. I guess you maybe have an in house studio or a studio with the company you’re with now . . . if you could tell me a little bit about what that’s like.
Nelson: I actually used my home studio to record the music for Wizard 101. I use a Macbook Pro. I used to use keyboards and sound modules, and now it’s all migrated to the machine itself. I’m now using virtual instruments, so all sounds are being mapped by a keyboard to the Macbook Pro. The drums are being triggered into the computer to help give the appearance that I’m being precise.
Friendly: And so what’s the name of the software you use to do that?
Nelson: The software is called MOTU's Digital Performer, and I use that for sequencing and for shaping sounds. It does have a lot of other tidbits and nice audio features. Also, when I want to do mastering or make corrections to the music, I use Digidesign's Pro Tools.
Friendly: Cool! Thank you! That’s interesting.
Friendly: So the vocal talent, or some of the sounds that are more human in the game, did those come from the Wizard 101 staff or how did those come about?
Todd: You mean originally? Are you talking about the voiceovers? I’ll have to think about that.
Friendly: Yeah, I noticed in one interview with one of your developers he said that maybe his voice was responsible for the imp sound in the game?
Todd: Yeah, the initial sounds were all original employees. We would grab people, and just say, hey, come in for a quick recording session. Then we’d just throw ideas at them like, “you’re voice is kind of funny, let’s do a leprechaun.” Most of that kind of stuff came from internal employees. More recently we decided we were interested in doing voiceovers, and you can see that now at the beginning of the game in the character creation phase. We actually started hiring actors for that, but we still are going to be using internal resources.
Friendly: So you have some hidden talent there it sounds like!
Todd: Yeah, a little bit.
Todd: The nice thing there is if we need to do something over, we just walk down the hall.
Friendly: OK, um . . . ok, uh . . . So I know this should be a touchy thing to talk about, but has Nelson been contacted to help with music for future worlds in the spiral that perhaps members of the fan community don’t know about. Has that already been in the works or are there many songs that have already been written and they are just waiting for a world that would fit it?
Todd: I can’t talk specifics. If I did, the people down in marketing would probably kill me.
Todd: What I will say is that we have some things in the kitchen here, we will absolutely be continuing to create worlds for the spiral. And if it was all up to me, I would definitely like to have Nelson back to do the music for that. He’s done great work, and I can’t say enough about it.
Nelson: They have The Crystal Method on tap to do the next music.
Todd: (jokes) Yeah, um, sorry to let you know this Nelson, but we’ve decided to move forward with Danny Elfman, um . . .
Todd: I hate to break it to you this way, in the middle of an interview like this.
Nelson: (sighs) I’ve set him up with a great soundtrack here.
Friendly: (more laughs)
Friendly: Ok, so you now have some more time on your hands; however, I imagine when it was crunch time with the music, you were quite busy! What would a standard day be like for you as a composer when you and Todd were throwing e-mails back and forth at each other . . . was that like an all day thing, did your significant other not see you much? What was that like?
Nelson: My girlfriend definitely saw less of me during that time. There seemed to be parts of the process that were busy, but I tried to leave a little room. Typically I try not to crunch if I don’t have to. It seems like the music sounds a little bit better when I don’t have to do that. There were times when the muse was flowing and felt good about what I was doing. I’ve pulled all day or all week stretches to compose music. With this project my schedule was interesting enough that I could recharge my batteries. Everyday there was something new to do. On a good day I can crank out about two minutes of finished material by the end of the day.
Nelson: So that can help in planning when you know you can produce about two minutes of material a day.
Friendly: Right. And then I’m sure having to go back and change that and refine what you’ve done took more time . . . that two minutes could stretch.
Nelson: Yeah, Todd could come back and say, “There needs to be more choir in here,” So you’ll need to take more time to flesh that out a bit. It’s really important to get your ideas to the team so you can move forward with your songs.
Friendly: Nelson, do you have any recommendations or advice for someone that reads this, a kid or someone like myself that would be an aspiring sound engineer? What kind of advice would you give them to get into this business, what you do!
Nelson: I think the opportunities for people coming into the industry right now are more accessible than when I was getting into the business. Community involvement and opportunities in start-up games, getting hooked up with them and actually getting something produced and released, are very good right now. And if you do this, then you’ll have a product to show to a company. There’s all kind of software and free software out there—garage gear. There are tutorials online that you can check out as well. In my spare time I’ve been getting into graphic design, and I’ve been using tutorials to learn. It’s the same for this business, there’s a lot of information out there about how to work with any particular application or create certain effects. There certainly are a lot of opportunities to learn new stuff on your own. And then building a network of friends will help. My first job came from chatting with a friend online who told me his company was looking for a sound engineer.
Friendly: Alright guys I think we are getting down here to our last couple of questions. Are there any thoughts or anything additional about something you’ve maybe thought about Wizard 101, the sounds, or maybe an exceptional story that sticks out in your mind when you’re going to look back to creating this game at this moment in your life?
Todd: Yeah, that’s a hard question.
Friendly: (laughs) It is! And if you don’t have an answer, then that’s fine too, but if there is something that you remember specifically or vividly that you remember about that, then I’m more than happy to share that with the community.
Nelson: Actually, there was a cool moment I had. When stuff started to come out about the game, I stumbled onto a You Tube video, and somebody . . . it like was a mom and her three kids, and they’re playing a game—and I haven’t even met the development team yet at this point, I had talked to Todd and a couple people that used to work at Kingsisle—and I didn’t know who these people in the You Tube video were at all. Well, these people were talking about their experiences with the game. They were all huddled around their computer, and one of the kids was talking about his life wizard. He had advanced and got a new spell, and he was really enthused about it. Well, in the background, I hear the music playing in this house of people that I had never met before.
Nelson: It was this really great connection that I had with these people that were playing this fun game.
Friendly: That’s great.
Friendly: One final question, on the Wizard 101 Central forums, where a lot of the fans of Wizard 101 go just to talk about different things, there’s an “off topic” forum and the major question they’re asking there is: String cheese—does it taste better peeled or just straight bitten into? Your thoughts . . .
Todd: Peeled! I think that’s kind of the whole point.
Nelson: Yeah, if you were just going to bite into it, it would be cubes or slices.
Todd: Right, I think something happens there on the molecular level.
Nelson: In fact, I think I learned about that in an Organic Chemistry class.
Friendly: Oh really? Well, see, we’re learning science with a random question and didn’t even know it.
Todd: What’s amazing to me are the string cows that produce the string cheese.
Friendly: (laughs) You guys are great!
Friendly: Do you guys have any questions for me?
Todd: I don’t think so.
Nelson: How’s that remix coming along?
Friendly: Yeah, I took the little soundbytes from the website that were meant for cell phone ring tones and put a beat behind it, and used it for one of my . . .
Todd: A dance tune?
Friendly: Yeah, I made a dance mix of it and used it in a You Tube video and people seemed to really like it.
Todd: Well I want to hear the dance mix! I didn’t know about that.
Friendly: Alright, I’ll get you the dance mix.
Todd: It better be techno though!
Friendly: Of course! Are you kidding?
Todd: I want to hear it played in a club downtown.
Friendly: Well, it’s pretty laid back.
Nelson: It’s going to be Tom down at the Alamo Drafthouse.
Todd: I want to hear some loud rendition here.
Friendly: we’ll do it! I’ll come DJ a Wizard 101 party at your place. We’ll blast it. People will be having a good time.
Friendly: Thank you guys for talking to me. I appreciate it!
Todd: Thanks, Tom
Nelson: Thank you!
Friendly: You bet! Have a good one guys.
A special thank you to Kiersten Samwell and Aleta Garcia for helping me coordinate this interview. Thanks to Todd and Nelson for being so freaking cool and allowing me to do the interview. And a big thanks to the readers and the fans of Wizard 101! I have plans for more interviews of those responsible for the making of Wizard 101, so stay tuned for more good stuff.
As always, Happy Dueling!