I had the chance to ask Jeff Kliment, manager of the LucasArts sound department, a few questions. This interview covers such interesting themes as sound design, game scores, voice acting, official soundtrack CDs and more.
Special thanks to the LucasArts PR team for their support... and of course to Jeff Kliment for taking the time to share so many details with us!
A German translation of the interview can be found at Adventure-Treff.
A) General questions
Hello! Could you briefly introduce yourself? How did you end up into the world of sound?
Hi... I am the Sound Department Manager at LucasArts. My department is responsible for creating sound and music assets and making sure that they are incorporated into our games in the best possible way. We work closely with the rest of the development team, including programmers, artists, and level designers, towards the main goal of producing a great sounding game.
I got started in audio at San Francisco State University in 1979, where I got a BA in Creative Arts. I studied studio recording as well as film post-production and other related subject. I also worked as an AV technician in the Student Union in a work-study program.
While I was still enrolled at SFSU I got a job at Russian Hill Recording in San Francisco. I stayed at Russian Hill for fifteen years working as an engineer. There, I had the good fortune to work on a wide variety of recording and post-production projects with some amazing people. During that time I also worked as a live sound mixer for several different bands.
How did you get the job at LucasArts?
A friend of mine was working here and he contacted me when they were looking for a new sound designer. This was 1996. I was interested in interactive audio, and figured LucasArts would be a great place to learn about that - which it has been!
What was the first LucasArts title you were involved with?
My very first assignment was Outlaws, where I assisted with various audio tasks. I created most of the weapon sounds for that title. I served as a Lead Sound Designer on Star Wars Rebellion, Grim Fandango, Star Wars Racer, and Star Wars Pit Droids.
B) Sound Design
How do you produce the sound samples that are used in LucasArts games? Are they usually designed synthetically or based on field recordings?
We use every technique in the book to create sounds. We do a lot of field recording, Foley work, we use samplers and synths... you name it.
Are you also using sound libraries from extern companies, or is all the sound produced in-house?
We try to do as much original content as possible, but we also make use of off-the-shelf libraries when appropriate. Most of our work is generated by the sound designers, though.
I believe LucasArts has built quite a sound library over the years. Is it difficult to organize such a library so that you always find the samples you need?
This is a huge task! We do have an extensive online SFX and music library and organizing the data is a full-time effort. In the past, we used a custom-made Filemaker database but we are now transitioning to NetMix.
The sounds in LucasArts titles never get repetitive. Ambient sound doesn't loop too soon, and every game has a unique feeling. How many minutes of new audio is produced in average for every title, and how much of the sound is "recycled" from older titles?
Thank you for noticing! We rarely recycle sounds and if we do, they are processed and customized for the new application.
Our games generally contain 500 - 2000 SFX files, depending on the scope of the title, and 50 - 120 minutes of music. We generate a lot of content!
Many new titles feature 3D sound. How difficult is it to produce?
The 3D systems are part of the sound engine, and it can be tricky to get the algorithms right. We are moving in the direction of true surround sound at this point. I think the next-generation consoles will all feature 5.1 surround or better.
How does the sound design for classic adventures (with less shooting, explosions and 3D sound) differ from other genres? Is sound production easier for this genre?
Our classic adventure games, such as Monkey Island or Grim Fandango, are the most sound and music intensive, by far. They also contain the most voice lines. When they player has so many choices and there is so much activity, we have to keep it interesting. Shooters are much more straightforward from a sound perspective.
How difficult is it to achieve the right balance between voice-overs, music and sound?
Tuning and balancing the soundtrack is very important. We work closely with our QA and programming teams to make sure everything is blending well and that the player can hear everything. Since the "mix" occurs in real time, this can be tricky. The key is to play through the game as many times as possible, tweaking along the way.
C) Managing the Sound Department
When did you become the manager of the LucasArts sound department?
I worked as a sound designer until the spring of 2000, when I was promoted to Sound Department Manager.
I guess managing the whole department means you have to make a lot of decisions about music, sound and voice-overs. What's your own musical background? Are you also composing music yourself?
No, I am not a composer. I took some music courses in school but, as I mentioned, my background is primarily engineering and mixing. Most of my experience has been "behind the scenes" as a sound designer and engineer.
LucasArts games always have excellent voice acting! I've noticed that the voice acting in almost every single LucasArts title for years has been directed by Darragh O'Farrell. How does he manage to do all this? Does he ever sleep?
[Darragh]: I'll answer your last question first. Yes, but not soundly. There are two key factors that have kept me on my feet over the years. Firstly, I've been directing for twelve years and have worked with most of the top voice over actors hundreds of times. As a result, I know what they are capable of and which roles are appropriate for each actor. This saves me a lot of time when casting Star Wars titles. Original titles still go through a lengthy audition process. The second and most important factor is the support I receive from my department. I have a great editorial staff and a department coordinator that can anticipate my every thought and need. They are the ones that really keep the recording process on track.
When reading the credits carefully, you often see quite famous actors in the voice credits. Is it hard to always find the appropriate voice for each character?
[Darragh]: More so for original titles. The main 5 or 6 characters are usually the sticking point. Finding the right fit for a Guybrush, Manny for Ben can be a real challenge. These are the characters you have to live with for 40+ hours of gameplay. The actor needs to have the right sound and attitude and most importantly acting ability.
If a famous actor is playing a major role in one of our titles it is planned that way, but if there is a famous actor playing a secondary character it's usually just a circumstantial thing. During recording for KOTOR I was in the studio the day after Thanksgiving and I gave Pat Fraley a character that was modeled after Ed Asner. Pat and Ed are neighbors and so Pat called Ed and told him we were in the studio and if he didn't come down in the next 10 minutes he would play the part and put on his best Ed Asner impersonation. 5 minutes later Ed was in the recording booth playing a short tempered Jedi Master.
LucasArts has lately worked often with well-known freelance game composers, such as Michael Giacchino, Jack Wall, Clint Bajakian and Jeremy Soule. How do you decide which composer to contract for which project?
We try to pick the right person for the job. Each composer has certain strengths and we select them accordingly. Sometimes the producer will have a preference and other times I make the decision. Also, availability is a factor. Sometimes a composer is already booked so we have to go with someone else. There are several factors involved.
LucasArts has also hired a new in-house musician, Mark Griskey. What are the advantages of LucasArts producing music both in-house and by contract?
The main advantage to using both in-house composers and contractors is efficiency. This approach allows me to choose the right person for each title without the overhead of a huge full-time staff. In addition to Mark Griskey, we have another full-time staff composer, Jesse Harlin. Between Mark, Jesse, and the independent contractors, we get a lot of bang for the buck.
You first met the "traditional" LucasArts composers Michael Land, Clint Bajakian and Peter McConnell when they were still employed by LucasArts. After that, you have also worked with them together on several occasions when they were doing contracted work (e.g. on Escape from Monkey Island and Indiana Jones and the Emperor's Tomb). How did this change your working relation?
That is an interesting question. In some respects, our relationship is totally different. I started out working for them and now they are working for me! But in other ways, nothing has changed. We are all working towards the common goal of making great-sounding games and our relationship is based on mutual respect. That's the bottom line.
Could you describe a typical workday of yours?
Ooh - no such thing!
D) Working with live musicians and orchestras
The overall sound of the music in LucasArts games has evolved a lot over the years. LucasArts has used several live musicians in games such as Monkey Island 3 and 4 and Grim Fandango, and now has even used a whole orchestra in Indiana Jones and the Emperor's Tomb, Secret Weapons over Normandy and Wrath Unleashed. How did it come to these decisions?
We are always looking to improve the quality of our soundtracks. Each generation of games has raised the bar. LucasArts believes in original scores and the best way to achieve that is with live players. Unless, of course, you are going for something different. For example, Dave Levison created an electronic score for RTX Red Rock, which was perfect for the mood of that game. In other words, we go for whatever works best.
Could working with orchestras become a new trend for computer games?
I certainly hope so. It will be the trend for LucasArts games, I can promise you that.
E) Games based on movies (Star Wars, Indiana Jones)
In games that are based on movies, you generally have two options: You can directly use the film soundtrack (like in Jedi Knight), or you can produce new music for the game that is only slightly inspired by the film themes (like in Indiana Jones and the Emperor's Tomb). When do you think which choice makes most sense?
That depends entirely on the game design and the goals of the director and project team. There is no single answer for this question.
In all the reviews I've read about Indiana Jones and the Emperor's Tomb, the music is mentioned as a superb enhancement to the gaming experience, and the soundtrack always got excellent scores. However, in quite a few reviews, they inaccurately claim the music would be the original score taken from the movies. Isn't it a bit frustrating to put so much effort and money into creating the music and then see some people not even realizing it?
Very insightful question... It can be frustrating, yes, but it just means that we've done a good job if the players can't tell the difference! This is true for both music and sound design, especially in Star Wars games. Most people think that we just lift all of the sound effects from the movies, but the fact is 80% or more of the SFX are created specifically for the game.
I always prefer original music written specificially for the game myself, since it usually fits the scenes better (e.g. Chinese cues in Emperor's Tomb), and it becomes less repetitive over time (especially if you play a lot of games from the same franchise, such as Star Wars games). Do you think the producers will choose this path more often in future?
That's a question for the producers!
F) Official Soundtrack CDs
LucasArts is famous for producing games that always have outstanding sound! Why do you only release soundtrack CDs sporadically? (For instance, why have there never been soundtrack CDs for The Curse of Monkey Island, Escape from Monkey Island, Indiana Jones and the Emperor's Tomb).
Soundtracks make good promotional tools and I believe we will continue to produce them for that purpose, but our primary concern is making great games.
Do you think there will be more soundtrack CDs in future?
I will certainly be looking for new opportunities to produce soundtrack CD's.
Do you have any idea if the soundtrack CDs that have been released (The Dig, Grim Fandango, The Best of LucasArts Original Soundtracks) have sold well?
Our fans love them, but the numbers tend to be modest, which is one of the reasons we don't produce soundtracks for every title.
Many fans of LucasArts' music who don't live in the United States or Canada are very disappointed that they cannot get their hands on the CDs, since most of these are only sold through the company store. Couldn't LucasArts try to make them also accessible to the rest of the world?
Sorry, that's a question for our sales folks!
Thank you for taking the time to answer this long interview!