AudioExclusive Interviews

Rob Zahn: Making the Most of Music

May 7, 2017 — by David Radd


AudioExclusive Interviews

Rob Zahn: Making the Most of Music

May 7, 2017 — by David Radd

Rob Zahn is a composer that has worked on a variety of genres including horror, fantasy, science fiction and more. Rob says that more than enjoying it, this makes him into a better composer.

“Regardless of whether you like it or not, it’s absolutely essential to know how to handle different styles of music if you want to get hired on a consistent basis,” noted Rob. “Having said that, I don’t think it’s an especially healthy habit to get too comfortable with labels like ‘horror’ or ‘fantasy’ because they’re much too broad and imply the overuse of tropes that can quickly make your stuff sound extremely tired and generic. But yeah, obviously variety is spicy, or something!”

One of the various musical experiences Rob has had is with the band Dead Wake. “I kind of grew up on rock and metal and there was a time when I didn’t listen to very much other than Dream Theater and Opeth and guys like that…but after a while I sort of abandoned it for various reasons,” said Rob. “I’ve gotten to stretch out a bit with Dead Wake as a bassist, vocalist, lyricist and arranger. Metal is definitely not a style I’m often asked to write in for gigs – hopefully that’ll change though! We recently finished tracking our debut album ‘Ghost Stories’ with Kevin Antreassian of The Dillinger Escape Plan and are looking forward to releasing it within the next few months.”

“I’ve played tons of gigs and sessions with a wide variety of different ensembles, from early music vocal groups, to full orchestras, to rock and metal bands, etc. I also spent a few years playing 3-5 hours daily on cruise ships all around the world,” he continued. “Often I’d need to make my own charts for myself and others and would spend hours transcribing – lifting parts from the original recordings. As a result, I’ve acquainted myself with a tremendous range of styles from Soca and Jazz to Funk and Classical. This experience has proven to be invaluable and I feel comfortable enough to write convincingly in almost any genre.”

The Quality of Live Performance

Rob’s work has also included composing for stage and concert halls, which he notes is very different than anything for games and any other accompanying music for visual media. This is because live performance music is music for its own sake, which is a different sort of performance.

“In the case of a completely acoustic orchestral setting, dynamics and volume are controlled in real time by the conductor and the players, who follow instructions given by the composer/arranger,” detailed Rob. “There’s no such thing as moving a fader here – meaning that everything has to work. Volumes and panning and things have to be balanced ahead of time and baked into the arrangement and to do this, a composer needs to have certain essential knowledge of how an orchestra or whatever ensemble they are writing for is balanced.”

“In lieu of the safety net of all things post-production, music for live performance must be orchestrated to work perfectly as is,” he continued. “Proper orchestration techniques, when applied to media music, will save the mixing engineer lots of headaches down the road, and also result in a much more aesthetically perfect and natural sounding score.”

Games Keep Evolving

Ultimately, Rob thinks that games are one of the highest art forms due to what player interactivity does to the experience. “Games are the culmination of every creative discipline you can imagine…programmers, graphic artists, designers, composers, actors – the list goes on – who are all obsessing and losing sleep over the same project,” said Rob. “Games are vessels of interactive story telling, which means that the person experiencing it is required to put some degree of work into progressing the story. At its best, it is not a passive experience. You don’t really get that with most other forms of media, at least not to the same degree. It’s an extremely thrilling thing to be apart of and its rapidly evolving year after year to offer new methods of immersion.”

Games are the culmination of every creative discipline you can imagine…programmers, graphic artists, designers, composers, actors – the list goes on – who are all obsessing and losing sleep over the same project. – Rob Zahn

“The challenging part of composing for video games is dealing with the technical aspects that are unique to game audio that you will never ever have to worry about with non-interactive mediums,” added Rob. “Making sure that loops are inconspicuous enough to not totally annoy the player, for instance. The experience of creating is its own reward, and of course, playing the game when it’s finally finished feels great.”

Rob had some suggestion for writing music for video games: “Open your eyes and look for the answers to all of your questions in the art and script. Open your mouth and ask plenty of questions. Ask more than you think you should. Open your web browser and do sufficient research. This is especially important if you’re asked to write period music. As you write, be sensitive to the details of the story and allow yourself to be immersed. Imagine you’re the player hearing this music for the first time.”

Working With Whimsy

As an example of the variety of styles Rob has worked with, Serial Cleaner had heavy ’70s overtones. He said that he spent a lot of time bugging the designer Krzysztof Zięba to try and narrow down what the style of the game would be.

Screenshot from Serial Killer

“I had a good look at the concept art iFun4All had sent over and Kris and I talked at length about different sounds and styles from that period that we wanted to incorporate in the game,” said Rob. “We traded tracks back and forth in emails and over Skype and basically binged on a ton of late ‘60s, ’70s and early ‘80s funk, disco, rock, and metal.

“What we ended up with is a collection of stylized, slightly cartoony tracks that are especially good for sneaking around and with plenty of nods to some of my favorite ‘70s artists like Herbie Hancock, Bennie Maupin, Stevie Wonder, Average White Band, Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Rainbow, YES, Pink Floyd, Kool & The Gang, Parliament-Funkadelic, etc.”

Words have edges too…and colors. These things inform the sounds I choose for my palette. – Rob Zahn

Hail the Cloud has a very whimsical tone to its art style, and Rob said he designed the music to be an aesthetic extension of the visuals. “All Hail the Cloud’s artwork is minimalistic, with lots of round, soft edges. I usually start to hear stuff while I’m looking through concept art or reading a script. Words have edges too…and colors,” said Rob. “These things inform the sounds I choose for my palette.”

The Way of Effortless Effort

Rob noted that his creative process was difficult to encapsulate simply. He thinks a lot and pours over various questions directed at myself and whomever he is collaborating with.

“Usually, at the very start of a project, I’ll sit down with the script, concept art, notes I’ve taken down while speaking with the director and various higher-ups, and any other resources I have on hand,” said Rob. “I will begin to familiarize myself as much as possible with the core elements of the story and of the main characters and start to think about how the music should behave throughout the project from functional and aesthetic points of view. I also consider the far less sexy yet equally important issue of budget, which is obviously the biggest determining factor for any project. Seriously, balancing your budget is the ultimate ‘creative process’.”

“Once all of this is more or less sorted out and I have a good idea of how much money I will be able to move around, I can decide on what kind of ensemble to write for. I’ll begin writing down ideas for themes and little motifs at the piano and eventually I’ll choose which of these lucky little cells of information will get to see the light of day in an actual piece of music,” he continued. “When writing programmatic music, the central narrative motivates the music, but that’s a very simplified description of an extremely complex relationship. When writing absolute music, the physical and mathematical principles that can be explored using just a few elements offer a staggering number of possibilities and that’s before involving timbre into the equation.”

When asked about how to deal with creative blocks, Rob suggested, “If you find that they are a problem for you, close this article and drop everything else you’re doing and go pick up a copy of Effortless Mastery by Kenny Werner. You can thank me later. I prefer single malt scotch.”

Never Work for Free

When asked about pursuing this career as a composer, Rob suggested hard work, but not just for anyone. “Find like-minded creatives in the industry who know what your work is worth and with whom you share mutual respect,” said Rob. “Don’t sweat it: there are hundreds and hundreds of games being developed every year around the globe, so seek and you shall find.”

Find like-minded creatives in the industry who know what your work is worth and with whom you share mutual respect

“It’s OK to be picky about what you decide to work on. Astonishingly, many developers treat the music and audio for their projects as an afterthought; don’t ever allow yourself to get mixed up in something that will ultimately hurt your reputation,” he added. “NEVER work for free. Jobs may pay well, or they may be very fun and challenging to do, or they may advance your career in some way. If a project doesn’t satisfy two of those three items, I’d think really long and hard about whether or not its worth your time.”

Developers Should Know What Music They Want

Looking into the future, Rob sees the prominence of VR tech in the future, so there should be more surround sound mixes from audio people. He also thinks that improving the audio going forward will be a minor concern going forward.

“I’d rather advocate for the development of more games with imaginative writing, interesting mechanics, compelling characters, etc.” said Rob. “I think many games, especially from AAA developers suffer from an acute case of copy cat syndrome and people are starting to crave something different.”

When asked about how developers should communicate with composers, Rob said, “If you don’t know what you want, neither do we. Please keep this fact in mind when you’re beginning to search for a composer or sound designer to bring onto your project. If you need to reference temp music or something similar, that’s completely fine (unless you fall in love with it – AN UNFORGIVABLE CARDINAL SIN) but please have some idea of what you want for your project. There’s really nothing worse than receiving a blank stare in response to a question about music or sound for your game.”

“I would strongly recommend reading Aaron Copland’s What to Listen for in Music for some insight into the ways composers and musicians think and particularly to learn a bit about the symphony orchestra, which is good information to know even if you don’t plan on using orchestral music for your current project. The more you know, the easier it will be to be specific and clear about what you want. Your audio people will respect you for it and you’ll be much happier with the end result,” Rob concluded.


David Radd

David Radd

David Radd is a staff writer for David loves playing video games about as much as he enjoys writing about them, martial arts and composing his own novels.