Tommy Tallarico interview by (April 21, 2009)

From Sonic Retro

This is an interview conducted by several members of, with Tommy Tallarico. The interview appears to be concerning Sonic and the Black Knight.

The Interview

ArchangelUK: First up a question that was discussed on the forums a fair bit actually…

Alex Tomalty: How did you become a Sonic fan and what Sonic games to you own?

Tommy Tallarico: I’ve been a Sonic fan from the very beginning. The Genesis/Mega Drive was always one of my favoite platforms… both to play games on and to write music for. The first time that drew me to Sonic was the amazing music. Hearing Green Hill Zone for the first time just blew me away. It’s one of those songs that you just instantly like the first time you hear it. I was also drawn in by the amazing speed of the character. I remember just being in awe that a character, level and graphics could move that fast. What were they calling it at the time?? Blast processing or something? Whatever it was… it was damn cool.

I had the privilege to work on a lot of really fun games for the Genesis/Mega Drive back then. Games like Global Gladiators, Cool Spot, Aladdin, Earthworm Jim 1 & 2… and that first Sonic was always our standard for excellence. We all adored and worshiped that game.

That being said, I’d be lying if I said I’ve been happy with where the Sonic games and franchise have gone. Maybe I’m just more of an old school type of guy, but I always thought the 2-D Sonic games had more playability and fun factor than the 3-D stuff. I hope that statement doesn’t offend anyone, it’s all just personal opinion and taste I suppose. But I really have a fond place in my heart for the 2-D Sonic stuff.

Stomp224, Urtheart, Leslie Wai: What made you want to compose for games, and how do you think it differs from composition for other media such as film?

Tommy Tallarico: My whole life, my two greatest loves and passions were music & video games. But growing up, I never thought to ever put the two together. Of course, when I was growing up in the late 70’s, early 80’s… there was no such thing as a video game composer! Music had always been around my family - my cousin is Steven Tyler from Aerosmith. His real name is Steven Tallarico, so I always kind of grew up idolizing him and the work that he did. So, I never thought it would be out of my reach to do something similar. My parents were products of the 1950s so I started playing piano when I was three years old, to Great Balls of Fire (Jerry Lee Lewis), Elvis Presley and stuff like that - but I always played by ear. It wasn’t until the late 70s, when I started to hear these amazing film scores from things like Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Rocky that I felt like I wanted to be a composer. That’s when I started getting into classical music - my favourite being Beethoven - and that’s how I learned to write scores for symphonies and orchestras, by listening to the masters such as John Williams and Beethoven.

When I turned 21, I left my parents to go out to California. I was looking for a career in the music industry. I didn’t know anyone, I didn’t have a job, no place to stay, no money, no friends, nothing. I just drove out there, showed up in Hollywood, and—let’s just say it doesn’t look like it looks like on television. The only other thing I knew was Disneyland, so I stopped a homeless person on the street, asked him where Mickey Mouse lived, figuring that must be a pretty cool place to be, and he pointed me down to Orange County. So I drove into Orange County and I picked up a newspaper and saw a job at Guitar Center. I was homeless. I was actually sleeping under a pier at Huntington Beach for the first three weeks I was out in California. But the first day I picked up a newspaper, saw the job, went down there the next day, and they said, “You’re hired, you start tomorrow.”

The first day I showed up for work, I was wearing a video game t-shirt and one of the first people who walked in the store that day was a producer from Virgin. They were starting a video game company right down the street, and he saw my shirt and he was like, “Whoa, you’re into video games?” I’m like, “Yeah, are you kidding me?”—I started reeling off everything I knew. And he says, “Do you want a job? You start tomorrow.” I was hired as a games tester, and I would literally bug the vice president of the company every day, saying, “Whenever you need music, just let me know. I’ll learn how to do it, and do it for free, and if you don’t like it, you don’t have to use it.” So about three or four months later, one of the first games that I was actually a producer and tester on was [the 1992 GameBoy] Prince Of Persia. And I asked him to do the music. They made me the full-time music guy after that.

In regards to how game composing differs from any other media, I think we’re always going to be different from film and television just because of how the medium is presented. Television is a very linear medium for example; you may only get a few seconds where your piece is used in the foreground. The reality is that film and television are by nature… stories, and that story is told through dialogue - because of that music is very much considered as background material to push the dialogue forward. With video games, the action drives the story, concept or main goal, so we get to create music that 80-90% of the time is the big action sequence.

Even great composers like John Williams are restricted in how he creates music, because he still has to sit down with George Lucas who tells him what music to create at which time frame. Because of the linear nature of the medium, the direction will very much be… “At 1:51 the music changes to dark and moody as Darth Vader just walked into the room, and at 3:42 the music needs to do this because the Death Star blows up”.

In game development, a designer will come to me and say, “Here’s the deal. There are a hundred guys on horseback with swords coming at you, and they’ve all come to kick your butt. Write me a three minute piece of music!”. From there my mind can go wild, as I don’t have the restrictions of a film or TV composer, and even then the interactivity can send me in different directions. For example, I’ll have this theme for 100 guys kicking my butt, but I may have to do a different interactive branching theme for 10 guys kicking my butt, and another if everyone was gone.

It’s this kind of diverse appeal and approach that we have that I feel that if Beethoven were alive today, he’d be a video game composer. :)

Hero Of Legend: With Sonic & The Black Knight how many tracks did you produce and what were they in relation to?

Tommy Tallarico: First let me say at what a GREAT honor it was to be contacted by SEGA of Japan to work on this franchise. It was a dream come true! Along with Mario and Zelda, I can’t think of another franchise that I hold so dear to my heart. A few years ago I had invited longtime SEGA composer Jun Senoue to one of my Video Games Live shows in San Francisco. I had always been a fan of his work and when my friends at SEGA in the U.S. said he’d love to come out to one of our shows I was really excited. I believe it was at that first meeting that I might have given him one of my soundtracks… but I don’t remember exactly. We kept in touch over e-mail and eventually he moved back to Japan. I couldn’t believe it when he sent me an e-mail asking to do a few tracks for the game. He also mentioned that my very good friend Richard Jacques would be working on the title as well. Along with Koji Kondo, Nobou Uematsu, Jason Hayes (Warcraft) and Michael Giacchino (Medal of Honor)… Richard is one of my favorite game composers and by far one of the most talented. It’s extremely rare in our industry that Japanese developers go overseas for music. I mean, sure I’ve worked on a bunch of games put out by Japanese companies like Konami, Capcom, Namco, etc. but you’re never asked directly by the Japanese… it’s always something like a U.S. or European developer who was doing the game for the publisher who had a secondary office in the U.S. Very rare that is directly with Japan. The only other time I had been asked to do something like that was when I worked directly with Miyamoto on Metroid Prime… again… one of the highest honors I think any person working in the industry could ever dream of.

Jun had given me a couple of movie files for different levels and the challenge for both me & Jun was to see if I should focus on doing orchestral or rock-n-roll… or maybe a combination of both. I ended up sending Jun about 7 or 8 quick 30 second demos. Some just orchestral, some just rock and some that had a little of both. Originally I was only supposed to be commissioned to do 2 songs that were 2 minutes each in length. Jun and the producer ended up liking 3 of the demos I had sent so they asked me if I could do 3 instead of just 2. Of couse I said “HECK YEAH!” They were leaning towards the more orchestral stuff and a few of them had some possible guitar parts. Both myself and Jun play guitar so I had asked Jun if he would like to play on 2 of the songs. I always love the idea of collaborating with other composers and musicians and he agreed.

To be honest, I have no idea what the final names of the 3 songs are (I guess I should ask Jun!) and I’m not sure which levels they are going to end up in. My inspiration for the project was to try and write great music that people would want to hear even after they turned the machine off. My love and knowledge of the franchise and character was enough to go on for me in order to write the music.

ArchangelUK: I always refer to Sonic, Mario and Zelda as “the holy trinity” of video gaming personally. We’ll find out those and get back to you!

JezMM: Are you given a brief or do you get to actually play/view the levels/scenes you’re composing tracks for to get inspiration? And if you do play, do you imagine the overall “sound” or instrumentation of the yet-to-be music or get particular melodies in mind?

Tommy Tallarico: Whoops! I should have read ahead… I guess I kinda answered that one above. :)

ArchangelUK: Now there was a lot of interest in this next question!

Ex Shad, Vger, Eric Bradford, Nathan Gamer, PJMan & PsychoSk8r: Did you take inspiration from any particular past tracks - directly or indirectly, like a remix, or a musician from older Sonic games?

Tommy Tallarico: I would have loved to have been able to take the original Sonic theme and mess with it. I was able to do something similar when I worked on a lot of the Pac-Man games with Namco… or the Bond game I worked on. I’m not exactly sure if SEGA owns 100% of the rights to that original music or not. I believe we had to go through a few different companies (including the original composer) to get the rights to play it in Video Games Live. But to directly answer the question… I didn’t really take inspiration from past tracks, I just kept imagining the Sonic character and all my Sonic experiences and how I would imagine it sounding like (without being able to use the older stuff).

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