Most of you is probably aware that Tomb Raider has its 20th anniversary this year. Therefore, Square Enix and Nathan McCree, the author of the music for the first three games about adventures of Lara Croft, decided to prepare a special concert to celebrate the very well known heroine. Moreover, the show will be recorded and published in both audio and video format. We’ve spoken with the composer himself about his musical achievements and about his memories from the production of the first installments of Lara Croft’s adventures, and also what are his plans regarding the Tomb Raider series anniversary.
When I was young, I wanted to be a rock star, be in a band and tour the world, but my father didn’t agree and demanded I went to University to get a degree. – Nathan McCree
gamemusic.net: How did you get to the Core Design team? How significant was working with such talented developers to you?
Nathan McCree: When I was young, I wanted to be a rock star, be in a band and tour the world, but my father didn’t agree and demanded I went to University to get a degree. So that’s what I did. But my degree wasn’t in music; it was in Computer Science and Software Engineering. My father thought it would be a good idea to get qualified in something secure that would earn me money to support my love for music! It turned out to be a good decision.
My first job after graduating from college was with a computer games company in Derby called Core Design – the game development studio that went on to create Tomb Raider. My first assignment was to program a music sequencer for the SEGA MegaDrive. I completed the project ahead of schedule so I wrote some music using the software to demonstrate how it worked. My boss, Jeremy Heath-Smith liked the music so much that he asked me if I wanted to write the music for their next game, Asterix and the Great Rescue. Of course I said yes, and I had a job change overnight. I became an in-house composer and sound designer for Core Design and I’ve never done any programming since.
gamemusic.net: You were working at Core Design when the studio was the most successful. What memories stayed with you from that time?
Nathan McCree: When I first started at Core Design, they weren’t at their most successful, but we had some good technology – and we were all young and very creative. I remember there was a strong family unit of about 20 lads, and we all went out drinking together religiously every Thursday night. It felt great waltzing into town with 20 lads (all in their early 20s) – you felt invincible! And we laughed… so much. If anything the 3 years leading up to the development of Tomb Raider were the best years I had at Core Design. Once Tomb Raider became successful, the studio changed. Relationships changed. The company got bigger, and much of the original family unit and atmosphere was dispersed. The pressure from the publisher to succeed and to continually release a Tomb Raider sequel every year became too much for the studio and after 6 glorious, but stressful years, eventually it failed to deliver, and the project was moved to the United States. The memories that stay with me are the times before Tomb Raider, when we worked for the company, Core Design, rather than the publisher. Our boss was happy, we were happy. And boy did we party!
gamemusic.net: While you were writing music for the first Tomb Raider, did you use any unconventional song writing methods? If so, what methods did you apply?
Nathan McCree: I am a trained pianist and keyboard player. Using MIDI technology, it is possible using synthesizers or sample banks to choose the sound of any orchestral instrument and to then play that sound using a keyboard. When I am writing music for orchestral instruments, sometimes the patterns I’m writing on the keyboard aren’t very easy to play on the actual instrument I am writing for. So I have to really think about the instruments I am writing for and how they are played. What frequency range they play and whether the player needs to breathe or not. There are many considerations to take into account. But I guess writing for 80 different instruments using a keyboard is somewhat unconventional.
gamemusic.net: What in your opinion is so exceptional in Tomb Raider music that it still has many fans?
Nathan McCree: I’m not sure to be honest. I think probably simplicity. Some of the most memorable and famous tunes are the simplest. And with simplicity comes repeatability. If people can repeat it, they remember it. I think the Tomb Raider Theme is simple and easily memorable. It is also important that a melody portrays the person, place, conversation or whatever it is trying to describe correctly. With Lara Croft I wanted to describe her simple beauty and perfection. That’s what I focused on when I composed the melody for her. If, as a composer, you get it right, your melody will glue the product together so tight, you can’t have one without the other. For example, you can’t have a James Bond movie without the James Bond Theme, and you can’t play the James Bond Theme without thinking about James Bond! And this is true with many franchises, Jaws, Indiana Jones, Star Wars, Superman, the list goes on.
gamemusic.net: This year is the 20th anniversary of the Tomb Raider series. For that occasion, an album with soundtracks from the first three installments of Lara Croft’s adventures will be released. What can the fans expect from that album?
Nathan McCree: The album is called The Tomb Raider Suite. It is a collection of the most popular pieces of music which I wrote for the first 3 Tomb Raider computer games. Many of the original game cues were quite short – only 20 or 30 seconds long – so I have extended those tracks by either embellishing the existing content or by adding totally new content so that each track has duration of about 3 minutes in length. The album will be performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the famous Abbey Road Studios in London. The album will be released on CD and vinyl and will also be available for digital download.
Tomb Raider: Live in Concert is the live performance of The Tomb Raider Suite with additional material written specially for the show. – Nathan McCree
gamemusic.net: What can your fans expect from this year’s Tomb Raider concert? How is the preparation going?
Nathan McCree: Tomb Raider: Live in Concert is the live performance of The Tomb Raider Suite with additional material written specially for the show. Robert Ziegler will conduct the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra for over 90 minutes of music. There will be synchronized lights and a giant video screen showing high resolution images and videos from the first 3 games. The show will be presented by the original voice actress for Lara Croft, Shelley Blond and there will be other special guest appearances which I can’t say more about just now. The preparations have been going very well. I have completed all the music now and the orchestrations are set to be completed today as I write this interview. The scores are then separated into their individual parts and posted out to the musicians in the orchestra. I have had extensive conversations with the Audio Engineer and the Lighting Director and the marketing machine is fully engaged. So fingers crossed we should have a good show for everyone to celebrate this 20th anniversary of the creation of Lara Croft and Tomb Raider.
gamemusic.net: How come that over all those years there was no official release of your Tomb Raider music? Do you think the anniversary may change that?
Nathan McCree: I don’t think anybody from Eidos (publisher of Tomb Raider) was really focused on soundtrack releases back in 1996. I think the market for video game soundtracks was quite small then, but that has changed over the last 20 years. And I do think this anniversary has helped in its own way to change that. It has shown the publisher that the fans do want this music – and they are prepared to pay for it. For certain there will be an official release of the music from Tomb Raider.
Well, I am continually thankful to the fans of Tomb Raider (and of my other projects) for their support over the last 20 years. – Nathan McCree
gamemusic.net: Years have passed but your popularity doesn’t fall. On the contrary, you have an impressive fanbase. What in your opinion is the reason behind this state of events? Does it have any influence on your current work?
Nathan McCree: Well, I am continually thankful to the fans of Tomb Raider (and of my other projects) for their support over the last 20 years. It really has been amazing. More recently I have really focused on engaging with my fans through social media and I think they have appreciated that. When you’ve achieved a certain level of success, I think you need to give something back to society. I give whatever free time I have to my fans. At the end of the day, I am just another human being trying to do well in my work. I am no different from anyone else. So no, it doesn’t influence my current work. I treat every new project the same. I give it my full attention and I try to do my best every time.
gamemusic.net: What do you think about the work of composers who created music for the latest games from the Tomb Raider series?
Nathan McCree: I assume you are talking about the ‘reboot’ games – Tomb Raider 2013 and Rise of the Tomb Raider. I’m sure most people will agree with me that these are very different games compared to the original Tomb Raider games that were created back in the late 90s and early 2000s. There are moments when I have been impressed by the music in the reboot series and I have certainly been interested in the technology implemented which creates procedurally generated rhythmic patterns. If you asked me, do I think there is a strong identity generated by the music for these products, I would probably say no – but that’s just my opinion, and I’m probably a little biased! From what I have seen in Let’s Play videos on YouTube though, they do look like amazing games to play and I’m sure they are very entertaining. Let’s face it, they have sold millions of copies. So something must be right.
gamemusic.net: If you had the opportunity to write music for the new installment of Tomb Raider, would you accept the job?
Nathan McCree: Yes, I think I probably would. I think the fans would expect me to say yes, and I wouldn’t be able to let them down.
gamemusic.net: The Tomb Raider theme song is considered by many gamers one of the most important theme songs in the history of video games. Could you shed some light on how it came to being?
Nathan McCree: I remember one day when I was working at Core Design, the door to my studio opened and Toby Gard walked in. He sat down and said “Right, we’re going to make Tomb Raider”. I didn’t really know anything about the project – I had only seen a few sketches of Lara Croft on Toby’s desk some months earlier. So Toby talked me through his ideas and we discussed the character of Lara Croft in some detail – where she was from, her upbringing, her likes and dislikes, how she spoke, her attitude. And after much talking we decided between us that English classical music would best suit the character of Lara Croft, and would also work well for the game as a whole. Toby had this grand idea of creating a kind of interactive movie, and he wanted the music to sound like a film score. So, armed with all this information, I set about writing the Tomb Raider Theme. At that time, most of the games that I had been playing were filled with either bombastic battle music or dance/techno tracks and I felt there was a niche in the market for more emotional content.
Toby had this grand idea of creating a kind of interactive movie, and he wanted the music to sound like a film score. – Nathan McCree
After all, kids love movies, and there’s plenty of emotional musical content in those. So I thought, why not bring some of that into the games industry. I wanted to capture Lara’s character and emotions, her loneliness, moments of sadness, her determination but most of all her beauty. And it was this aspect of her character that I focused on when I was writing the theme. I wanted to make it simple and beautiful. The oboe seemed a good choice for the main melody (it’s often used in sad or emotional moments in classical music) and accompanied by a repeating harp pattern which for me provided the beauty element of Lara’s character. The simple “ahhs” from the male section of the choir provides a sense of perfection while the strings and horns give us that nice warm feeling. I remember starting with the Harp pattern, and the piece just expanded from there.
gamemusic.net: Video game music is becoming more and more similar to the film music. Do you think that’s the right way?
Nathan McCree: No, not necessarily. I think it very much depends on the genre of game. You wouldn’t write a movie score for a Vegas slot machine for example or for a Monster Truck racing game. Where there are story elements in a game then that warrants a discussion about movie score music but we shouldn’t fall into the trap of trying to make games like movies. They are a different medium and we should remember that. Movies are not interactive, games are!
gamemusic.net: What do you consider your greatest musical success? It doesn’t have to be related to the video game music industry.
Nathan McCree: Probably the introduction music to The Spice Girls Christmas Tour: Christmas In Spiceworld. I remember back in 1999 the Lighting Director, Peter Barnes called me and asked me if The Spice Girls could use my Tomb Raider Theme for the introduction to their show. I suggested that rather than use the Tomb Raider Theme, it might be better if I wrote something specifically for their show in the style of Tomb Raider. He thought this was a good idea, so we started discussing how it was going to work. Basically he wanted to design a light show that was synchronised to the music. So the music had to follow a script. It had to start very gently, but mysteriously, then breaking out into a Tomb Raider style beauty, and finally building to an energetic climax filled with laser shot sound effects and explosions.
Where there are story elements in a game then that warrants a discussion about movie score music but we shouldn’t fall into the trap of trying to make games like movies. – Nathan McCree
We scripted out the design to the second and there were a few iterations going back and forth until eventually we had the piece nailed down. Peter then designed and programmed the lighting sequence which was triggered from the time code of the music. Of course I was invited to the show as a VIP guest. I had a front row seat at Earls Court Stadium. There were a lot of people there! When the lights dropped down low and my tune Marshlander started playing, 22 000 Spice Girl fans jumped out of their seats and started screaming – it was an amazing sensation for sure – and the light show, was fantastic!! It totally blew me away!