At the end of April, I had an honor to make an interview with Neal Acree, the composer of many great music themes for Blizzard’s games (cinematics especially) and more. I’m sure that Blizzard’s fans will be interested in this topic, but also I would like to invite beginners to read this text. You have the opportunity to get knowledge about many details that are not possible to find on the other interviews for other websites and press.
I would still make music if I was the last person on Earth and there was nobody out there to listen to it.
gamemusic.net: How did you start working with Blizzard Entertainment?
Neal Acree: I first worked with Blizzard in 2006 when I scored the opening cinematic for World of Warcraft: the Burning Crusade. Through a series of fortuitous events my agent at the time managed to get me an audition which thankfully landed me the job. I couldn’t imagine something like that happening these days so I’m grateful that I had the opportunity that I did when I did because it has led to so many incredible opportunities over the years.
gamemusic.net: Does your cooperation with Joel Goldsmith on Stargate has any impact on your current work?
Neal Acree: Absolutely. When I started working for Joel I had maybe scored a handful of short films but through the years of working with him I learned so much. The fast paced schedule of working on several shows at once taught me to trust my instincts, find a shorthand to communicate musical ideas quickly and effectively and how to quickly change gears stylistically. I often refer to that time as my “composing school” because I learned a lot on the job, how to write to picture, mix, orchestrate, run a business and how to maintain creative output for months at a time without a break. On a musical level I still find myself approaching things in a similar way as I did on the show. I don’t think that will ever leave me.
gamemusic.net: Every game project has its lead composer who sets a direction the whole composers team follows. Do you have any methods to make your music differentiate from others’ compositions? Personally speaking, listening to music from Blizzard games, in most cases I can tell “This piece was surely composed by Neal Acree”.
– e.g. Derek Duke was the main composer of Reaper of Souls and he established a music style and then he instructed the other ones.
Neal Acree: I never set out to make my music sound different. In fact, I always try to find ways to incorporate other composers’ themes and approaches so that the score on the whole can be as cohesive as possible. That being said, we all have our own unmistakable voices that come through whether we want them to or not. We each have things that we like to hear in music and those things come out in our own music. I’m proud of the fact that I do have a recognizable voice as a composer though truthfully it’s never been my goal to stand out within a team project. I just try write the best music I can and hope that it resonates with people the same way it did for me when I was writing it.
gamemusic.net: Blizzard is well-known for producing astonishing cinematics often accompanied by epic musical themes. I suspect that this is an important and responsible task. Could you tell us a bit about this process? Were all cutscenes in Blizzard games (starting from WoW:tBC) scored by you?
Neal Acree: I have had the incredible honor of scoring many of Blizzard’s cinematics since that first one in 2006. It’s a huge responsibility knowing that my music will accompany the incredible visuals that hundreds of talented artists worked on for so many months and that it may be the first musical statement millions of people will hear of the new game. The process begins when I sit down early on with the cinematic director and just like one would on a movie, we watch the piece and discuss the musical direction, what beats need to be hit, what themes might be appropriate, etc. Depending how early I get involved the visuals might be anything from storyboards to basic animatics to fully rendered graphics.
It’s a huge responsibility knowing that my music will (…) may be the first musical statement millions of people will hear of the new game.
The next step is usually doing a little research. Looking up themes that might be appropriate, reading up on lore and trying to understand the piece on a deeper level. As I do this, musical ideas begin to percolate and I’ve often written a lot of the ideas in my head before I even start recording them. Next I sit down at the keyboard and either work out some thematic ideas or start scoring to picture. I orchestrate as I write and as I gradually add layers, the music starts to come into focus and soon I have a first pass. I usually present my ideas in a fully orchestrated and fairly polished form using samples so the director can hear it as close to how it might sound with real players as possible.
The we begin the iterative process. Over the next few months the director and I work on fine tuning the music to best fit the picture and best convey the vision they had for the piece as a whole. This can sometimes involve going in a different direction entirely. It’s a very interesting collaborative process that takes a lot of patience but we’re all out to make the best music possible and it’s always worth it. Once the director signs off on the music, the process of recording it live begins. The music gets orchestrated, recorded with an orchestra and often a choir and them we mix, carefully editing the tiniest details to make the music sound the best possible. I look at the level of detail the artists put into the cinema tics and try my best to match that musically. Ultimately though, what matters most is conveying the right emotion to the viewers. So much goes into every frame of picture and we want them to feel that in every way possible.
gamemusic.net: Many modern composers combined traditional methods of recording music with the latest technology. For example recording live instruments in concert halls and scoring stages and then adding sampled instruments and synthetic sounds. Do you also use both? If yes, then what is a balance between tradition and technology?
Neal Acree: I use both and the balance depends on the stylistic direction of the project. On StarCraft II for example, the sound we are often going for, especially in the cinematics is a a very modern sound with a heavy balance of electronics with orchestra. Other projects might require a more traditional sound or a more subtle balance of non-orchestral sounds added for color. I try my best to find a balance between the traditional orchestra and electronics. Many composers lean heavily in one direction or the other, often compromising one approach for the other but I’ve always tried to use the orchestra and electronics in ways that compliment each other. I see electronics as an extension of the traditional orchestra, not a replacement for it.
gamemusic.net: Do you experiment a lot in the creation process (composing/recording techniques, ensembles, instrumentations etc.) or do you prefer more traditional approach? Tell us more about the ways you use to achieve the sound you look for. I’m sure many composers will appreciate sharing some of your invaluable experience. How do you find inspiration in this process?
Neal Acree: Absolutely. Experimentation is key to finding fresh ideas and new ways to convey emotion. It’s impractical to re-invent the wheel every time out and a traditional approach is always part of the equation at some point but the things that resonate the most with me are the unexpected. Plus, these days every new project starts with the director telling the composer “I want to hear something that’s never been done before”. I wish I was exaggerating but it literally happens every time. We’re all trying to find a new way to tell the stories we grew up with.
How do I achieve the sound I’m looking for? It often starts with a concept, or an idea that at least works on paper. Sometimes it’s obvious, like using Asian instruments for a game set in Asia. Sometimes it’s a little below the surface like using contrasting yet complimentary musical ideas. Sometimes it involves combining drastically different sounds or juxtaposing beautiful music over horrific images or vise versa.
Once I find an idea or an approach, I build a palette of sounds to work with, drawing from sample libraries or often recording new sounds to achieve what I’m hearing in my head. I will almost always manipulate the sounds in one way or another. I hate hearing “out of the box” sounds in music, especially when it’s so easy to customize and manipulate them. Then I try to find ways to blend these sounds together or with an orchestra, listening for complimentary sounds. High pitched sounds will often go well with more bass heavy sounds. Too much of one type of color will get muddy or lose the detail that you may have intended in the first place. Every sound should find it’s own sonic space and the finished product should blend seamlessly like paint canvas.
gamemusic.net: Did you have any interesting or unusual challenges and problems to face you would like to talk about?
Neal Acree: The thing I try to convey to people that ask me if they should be a composer is that it can be a really difficult job, a lot harder than it looks. You really have to want to do it more than anything else. It can be the funnest job in the world at times but it can also take you to the edges of sanity. I don’t say that to discourage people, it’s the truth. Most composers don’t talk about that side of it. To stay competitive we all put on a brave face but I think it’s a disservice to not talk about the fact that we all doubt ourselves from time to time, even the best of us. The only difference between the ones that make it and the ones that don’t is that the ones that make it never gave up no matter how much they might have doubted themselves.
gamemusic.net: How could you describe your collaboration with soloists? The first that comes to my mind is Laurie Ann Haus, were there any other?
Neal Acree: I’ve worked with a lot of soloists over the years from Laurie to Tina Guo, Jennifer Lynn, Karen Han, Pedro Eustache, Judd Miller and many others but Laurie is probably my most frequent collaborator. A good soloist can add so much to a score and a voice like Laurie’s can breathe as much life into a score as a full orchestra.
I first started working with Laurie when I was working on StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty. I was looking for a singer with Lisa Gerrard’s range but with a unique “voice” of her own both literally and figuratively and found Laurie on the other side of the country. Though she did fly out to LA to work with me on that we’ve been able to collaborate cross-country through the miracle of technology on several films and games now.
The process of collaborating with a soloist usually involves giving them some kind of framework, whether that be a written melody or some general parameters for improvisation. With ethnic instruments I’ll usually have them play the melody a few times to get it under their fingers then let them play with it and make it their own. A good soloist is a master of their instrument and will bring years of experience to every session. It’s important to trust them and give them the freedom to bring that to the performance. Every session is a learning experience for me as I get to know the instrument, it’s range and limitations and the personality of the player. If you’re lucky (and luck favors the prepared every time), then magic will happen and you’ll get something better than you or the soloist could have come up with on their own. That’s try collaboration.
gamemusic.net: Could you tell us about writing for choirs? Do you use real languages, fictional ones from game universe (“Arthas, My Son” for example) or do you create your own words? How about the whole rest of your music, like “The Eternal Conflict (DIII)”, “The Wrath of Angels (RoS)” or “Vengeance (SCII:HotS)”?
Neal Acree: One of the best things about writing choir music for Blizzard games is that there is a wealth of lore and in-game languages to draw from. I’ve also been able to enlist Blizzard’s lore department to translate my own texts into the languages of the game. This has allowed me to add layers of subtext that most people aren’t even aware of but it makes the music feel more complete and authentic to me knowing they’re there. Where no specific language exists I have used Latin in the past an occasionally, when a specific effect is desired, I will use syllables that don’t translate into anything but for the most part, the lyrics are written in the language of the characters in the game.
gamemusic.net: You have just begun working on another games like Revelation Online. Could you tell us more about this project?
Neal Acree: Revelation is a dream project and my first solo game title. The game is a gorgeous Chinese fantasy MMO that will be released soon in Asia and eventually worldwide. The music was an opportunity to take the Asian influenced sound I used for World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria a step further and create a full orchestral score with sweeping Asian themes and authentic instruments. It’s a very special project for me and I can’t wait for everyone to hear it. I’m working on releasing a soundtrack later this year. I will also be conducting some of the music live in China for the game’s premiere in June. I’m really excited about that.
Another game I worked on recently is the Chinese MOBA Wild Fire. The score is a quite a bit different and not Asian at all. Orchestra mixed with guitar and electronics. The theme is a bit of a throwback to some of the games I grew up with and I’m looking forward to sharing that one soon as well.
gamemusic.net: I (and many Blizzard fans) would like to finally see Blizzard releasing complete soundtracks of their games. Do you think it is possible in the future?
Neal Acree: I wish I had an answer for you. I would never rule anything out completely but is ultimately up to Blizzard and I’m not involved in those decisions. Personally, I think that would be awesome! Keep asking and maybe it will happen one of these days!
gamemusic.net: Would you like to say something to you fans?
Neal Acree: I would still make music if I was the last person on Earth and there was nobody out there to listen to it but knowing that people are listening and are moved in even the slightest way by the music I write is a profoundly humbling feeling. Ours is a very isolated profession as we often create music in a near vacuum with barely anyone hearing it but ourselves for months at a time. I would like to give a heartfelt thanks to everyone that’s reached out, performed covers, attended concerts or even posted positive comments on YouTube. You make all the hard work with it!
If you’d like to know more about Neal, his works and Blizzard’s music, you can find them here: