Posts tagged ‘Rise Of Nations’

February 19, 2013


Sometimes hard work and noble intentions aren’t enough to bridge the gap between musical genres. It seemed to work between other genres, so why not bring a game soundtrack to a classical music concert stage? Then again, maybe it really was a great idea, but the circumstances made it impossible to pull off.

About three years ago, my old friend, Maestro Gabriel Sakakeeny, contacted me with the idea of arranging a long piece of music using my work from the “Rise Of Nations” and “Rise Of Legends” video games. He suggested that I use a sonata allegro form because it has been used for hundreds of years in classical music. He was the Founder and Music Director of the American Philharmonic – Sonoma County and wanted to include the piece in one of the orchestra’s concerts.

From this challenge, I quickly realized that this could be yet another opportunity to learn and grow and take my career into a whole new direction.

But I was deep in the throes of looking for a paying job to support my family and I had no experience in classical music since college. Despite that, I started wondering if this could be a path that would be rewarding and far-reaching. After all, I have never backed down from trying things that might be considered unconventional. New paths had sometimes paid off for me throughout my career.

But sometimes no matter how hard you try, things just don’t turn out the way you plan. Such is the story of an ill-fated effort to bring my “Rise Of Nations Overture” into the classical music realm.

I spent months in my studio sifting through music, choosing what would be included, editing, arranging and orchestrating and ultimately created the entire 8-minute, 36-second piece inside my computer. It was the philharmonic orchestra arrangement of my work on those games. I had to leave a lot of music out, due to its diverse, ethnic nature and unique instrumentation. But I knew that it would not be practical to bring in soloists playing rare and unique instruments from all over the globe, so the overture focused on the orchestral portion of the scores.

The world premiere performances were to be at the Wells Fargo Center for the Arts in Santa Rosa, California on February 19th and 20th, 2011. Then the reality of our undertaking became an issue. The community orchestra did not have the instrumentation required to pull off the piece. So my portion of the concert was cancelled.

Gabriel then booked the piece at a high level, private venue in Monte Rio, California in May of 2011. I was invited as a guest and was treated like royalty. But the concert was scheduled to take place outdoors and a thunderstorm turned the venue into mud. That concert was cancelled, as well, and rescheduling it turned out to be impossible.

While this piece of music has never been performed live, I have learned volumes about my craft. And even when you go into a project with all your heart and soul, things can go wrong.

Everyone in creative fields, whether they admit it or not, has gone through challenges and failures that may not be their own fault. Don’t take it to heart, learn from your mistakes and your successes — and always give it your all.

December 30, 2012


In my last blog post, I mentioned pieces of music that never get used. I was curious to take a listen to those bits, so I booted up my master music library and revisited some old tunes. There were a lot of tracks that I loved hearing again, but I realized that I have come a long way since they were written.

Then I came across “Quartet” which I originally wrote for Rise Of Nations. After nearly 10 years, the details are fuzzy as to exactly why the track never appeared in the game. But the process I have always followed is to put together a “temp track” so that the producers, game designers, etc. can listen to it before going into full production. That means that Quartet, as you hear it here, was composed, performed, mixed and mastered by me on a digital audio workstation (DAW). Essentially, a DAW is a computer system that’s sole purpose is music creation.

To be honest, Quartet did have a small and rather obscure part in Rise Of Legends. Although it is never heard in the game, it appeared as a bonus track on the original soundtrack (OST) released by Nile Rodgers’ Sumthing Else Records. As we were putting together the project, Nile suggested that we include bonus tracks. I had nine first pass music tracks that I composed for the game before we shifted musical direction. So those pieces were added to the DVD.

The Rise Of Nations OST was the first game soundtrack to be released on DVD with both stereo and 5.1 surround mixes. But being the first of anything can be dangerous. It proved to be more of a test for other game soundtracks. When the first run of this soundtrack was sold-out, there were no reprints made. There are only a couple thousand in existence, making them very rare.

So now that I’ve exposed one of my little bits that has been hidden away, I wonder if I can persuade other composers to contribute to the “Unused Symphony?”


November 17, 2012


To quote Abraham Lincoln in his Gettysburg address: “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here …”

The same is true for composers whose work speaks within a larger project. Their names are usually buried at the end of the credits, which most people will never pay attention to. How many people actually stay in the theater to read the credits at the end of a movie or dig through documentation to find out who composed the music score for a game? Most people only remember whether they liked or disliked their entertainment experience.

So it always amazes me to hear from fans who actually care enough and take the time and energy to send me an e-mail or post a note on my blog, Facebook page or YouTube channel.

Getting to the point of having my music reach so many people has been a lifetime commitment, though. And every composer has his or her own path and learns different skills along the way.

I started out playing in school bands and rock bands. In college, I designed and co-built my first synthesizer, which enabled me to offer more diverse and unique shows. Exposure to this music was limited to those who came to my shows or heard my recordings on the radio.

I then moved on to being a product specialist/clinician for synthesizer manufacturers because of my knowledge of both music and technology. While it offered almost no exposure for my music, I learned a vast amount about music technology. That enabled me to start composing for games.

I never thought that my pinball games would expand my reach. But I uploaded a montage of my pinball music to YouTube recently. Much to my surprise, it is one of the more popular videos on my channel. It seems that there are fans of old school pinball music who love that Lo-Fi audio experience.

Because of my pinball experience, I was able to join FASA Interactive, creating music for the “MechWarrior 3” and “MechCommander” video games. Because of the success of those games, FASA Interactive was acquired by Microsoft Game Studios. That led to scoring the soundtracks for “MechWarrior 4” and its expansion packs, “Rise Of Nations” and a host of other smaller projects.

When I left Microsoft in 2003 to form my own music production company, it allowed me to score the soundtracks for “Rise Of Legends,” “Civilization Revolution,” “Defense Grid” and several small projects.

I am now a full time composer/sound designer at IGT, the largest manufacturer of slot machines in the world. My music is heard in casinos on five continents. I could have never gotten to this point without the notoriety I’ve gained by reaching out and seeking publicity throughout the years.

Beyond the body of work, I always made a conscious effort to keep my name out there through personal contact and writing published feature stories for newspapers, music trade magazines and game Web sites.

These days, it is a given that you need to have a Web presence. My Web site, Facebook page, LinkedIn profile, blog and YouTube channel all contribute to creating publicity for my work and reaching a wider audience. While you may think that it’s not necessary to continue pursuing more visibility when you have a great job, quite the opposite is true.

Although I work for a large company now, all of my individual work contributes to the overall success of the company. When you work on creative teams, you are motivated by others on your team. If I know that a colleague has received patent awards or worked on world-class games, films and TV shows, etc., I am inspired to do my best work.

When you aspire to be a musician or a composer, exposure is key to building a fan base and a successful career. You will start small and you must never expect that the world will come knocking at your door just because you were the most talented kid in your school.

If you commit to a career in music, if you truly believe that you can withstand all the obstacles that will inevitably be thrown in your path, and know very deep in your heart that this is the only thing that you want to do for a career, you have a chance to succeed. Let the world know that you have something valuable to contribute by expanding your reach and making it easier for people to find your music.

May 30, 2012


My soundtrack for “Rise Of Nations” was the first game soundtrack album to be released in 5.1 surround sound on DVD. While I’m proud to have pioneered a first-of-its-kind product, surround sound never achieved its full potential with the mass audience. The DVD came and went fairly quickly and copies are now very rare. But the interesting part of this saga was how it was composed, how it even got released and who was responsible.

“Rise Of Nations” was developed by Big Huge Games (BHG) and published by Microsoft Game Studios (MGS). I was the audio lead for the game while I was still working for MGS. The original idea BHG had for the soundtrack was to license authentic World music. As I started to research the genre, I realized that while it was authentic, it didn’t seem to fit into the game. Soundtracks need to support the story line. When you have such diverse and sometimes very odd sounding music, it tends to overshadow the story instead of providing support.

So I went out on a limb and put together some musical sketches to pitch to the team. I was thankful when I was given the green light to create an original soundtrack. It could then be a single vision that wrangled different elements from world, cinematic and contemporary musical genres that supported the story line. I was also fortunate to have been given a budget that allowed me to hire some outstanding musicians from the Northwest Sinfonia.

Because the game was to be released on Windows for PCs, I mixed and mastered the music in stereo. After I delivered all the files, I had a few weeks before starting my next project and decided to do a surround mix. I thought that MGS might be interested in releasing that version as downloadable files to help market the game.

As I was looking for allies in the company to pursue that, I was invited to a meeting with Nile Rodgers, who had been pursuing a partnership with MGS to release soundtracks on his label Sumthing Else Records. For those who are unfamiliar with Nile’s work, he was a founding member, along with Bernard Edwards, of the legendary disco/funk band Chic, probably best known for the tune “Le Freak.” After achieving fame, in his own right, as a guitarist and songwriter, Nile went on to produce hits for artists ranging from Madonna and Mick Jagger to Duran Duran, Thompson Twins, B-52s and many more.

So I went to this meeting and I could scarcely believe that I was sitting across from this Hall of Fame-caliber musician and producer, pitching the release of my “Rise of Nations” soundtrack. As my portion of the meeting was winding up and my hopes were dwindling, a co-worker piped in and said, “What do you think we should do about the surround mix?” That comment was like someone lighting firecrackers on the table. Nile’s first reaction was – “Now, that’s cool!” After a burst of creative brainstorming, Nile was ready to release the first game soundtrack to ever be released in 5.1 surround sound on DVD. He executive-produced the album, was always supportive throughout the process and continues to be a friend to this day.

When something has never been done, you have no template to guide you. So I researched what was possible and not possible and what would enable people to play the soundtrack on their existing audio systems. We finally decided that a standard DVD format would allow both stereo and 5.1 surround mixes to be included on the soundtrack. Any standard DVD player could be used to hear the music without forcing people to have a DVD audio player or a full-blown 5.1 surround speaker system.

As I said, the album was short-lived. But it was an experience that I’ll never forget because it speaks volumes about the creative spirit of everyone who was involved. The game, as well as soundtrack, found a very devoted fan base that is still vibrant to this day. If you do a search on YouTube for the “Rise Of Nations” soundtrack, you will find a lot of music and very positive comments from gamers who really feel a connection to both the game and the soundtrack. Huge thanks to Nile Rodgers for backing “Rise of Nations” and to the loyal listeners who’ve kept this soundtrack alive.

April 7, 2012


As a composer, you just never know which of your works of music will have staying power.  I did not expect “Battle At Witch Creek,” a simple piano piece that I composed for the “Rise of Nations” soundtrack (released in 2003) to have such lasting impact.  But many video game fans, music students and aspiring composers have asked for the sheet music or come up with their own interpretations of the piece — often with stunning results.  (The original:  The “Glewndack” version:  The “Shatteredr” version:

“Rise of Nations” was developed by Big Huge Games and published by Microsoft Corp.  The soundtrack, released by Nile Rodgers’ Sumthing Else music label, was the first video game soundtrack available in full-surround sound (5.1) on DVD.  Composing and recording this music was truly memorable.  I worked with first-rate musicians from the Seattle-based Northwest Sinfonia, with the assistance of conductor Simon James. The sessions were recorded at Sound Lab Studio in Redmond, WA.

“Battle At Witch Creek” was also a nod to one of my former bands, which was called Witch Creek and based in San Diego.  While the band didn’t last a long time, it was a true creative experience that made a life long impression on all of us as well as a lot of people who saw our shows.

One thing that astounds me about the popularity of “Battle At Witch Creek” is that it took me very little time to write it.  I’m not going to call it a throwaway composition, yet it’s an example of a piece of music that came out of “going with the flow.”  Sometimes over thinking or spending too much time on a piece of music leads to nothing but frustration.  In my experience as a composer, I’ve made it a habit to write what I call a “sloppy copy,” based on whatever mood or vibe I’m feeling at the time.  You simply push the record button and play.  Let yourself go in whatever direction you’re feeling and don’t worry about wrong notes or poor timing.  The point is to capture the moment.  It’s helpful to then hit the save button and walk away.  Come back and revisit your work a day or two later, with fresh ears.  You can always tweak it to make it better, but the first rule is to go with the flow.

Witch Creek at a concert at Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, CA. From left to right: Mike Sterling - guitar, Rick Reed - bass, me on drums, Robb Lawrence - guitar, Gabriel Sakakeeny - keyboards. Photo courtesy of Robb Lawrence.