Interview with Neal Acree

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Artist Spotlight: Neal Acree/ Questions by Troels Folmann. December 2012.

Introduction

Neal Acree is an award winning film, television and video game composer whose work includes the massively popular game franchises World of Warcraft, StarCraft II, Diablo III, shows like Stargate SG-1, Stargate Atlantis,Witchblade and over 25 feature films. A versatile composer with roots in classical, rock and electronic music, Acree’s music has been recorded and performed by orchestras and choirs around the world, including the hit concert tour Video Games Live.

Tell us a little bit about your musical background- and influences?

I grew up surrounded by musical instruments and was exposed to a very wide variety of music from the time I was born. My dad played everything from guitar, mandolin, fiddle and celtic harp and hammered dulcimer and my parents listened to everything from classical to bluegrass, celtic, rock, 80s pop and techno. I found my own musical identity in soundtracks, my first being The Empire Strikes Back and Superman.

I grew up thinking I was going to be an artist. That’s what everyone told me I should do but there was a point when I realized I couldn’t stop making and learning about music. The more I followed that path the more it became a reality even though at the time I had no idea how I would make a living at it. Eventually I came to realize that everything I was doing was leading me towards being a composer. Nothing was more powerful to me than the marriage of music to picture and I couldn’t think of a better way to express myself.

You started out on guitar, is that correct? How do you compose your music, do you start on the piano or do you sometimes pick up the guitar and use that as a starting point?

I started on guitar but started writing on piano pretty early so it remains my go to for laying down ideas. I’ll definitely pick up the guitar when I’m looking for that particular sound but as a compositional tool it’s usually the piano/keyboard first.

I remember you said in an interview that among others the score for Star Wars sparked your interest in making music for movies. If you had to think of a contemporary composer or soundtrack that you particularly like, who or which would it be and why? Anything in 2012 that really caught your “ear”?

Hans Zimmer has done some cool stuff in the past few years. I’ve spent my whole career trying to avoid sounding like him because there are so many guys that do that so well but his sound is so much a part of the vocabulary of modern scoring that it’s impossible to not be influenced on some level. I liked the Dark Knight Rises score. Centering it around a repeating rhythmic ostinato seemed like the natural progression from the 2 chord Batman theme in Batman Begins and the one note Joker theme in The Dark Knight. The film wasn’t perfect but the soundtrack is one of the few that I bought that came out in 2012.

Alexander Desplat has been doing some great stuff and his old school sensibilities and the European sophistication in his music are a welcome breath of fresh air. I loved what he did for the last Harry Potter film. I’ve always enjoyed Elliot Goldenthal’s work though there’s been less of it lately. I haven’t heard the Hobbit soundtrack yet (I’m waiting for the movie) but I’ve always been a fan of Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings scores. James Newton Howard and Thomas Newman are great. I liked the Skyfall score more than most people did. I’m a big fan of the Bond music and wasn’t disappointed.

How did you end up working with Blizzard?

Through a seemingly random yet fortuitous series of events I ended up scoring the opening cinematic to the 2006 World of Warcraft expansion The Burning Crusade which led to my scoring the Wrath of the Lich King cinematic in 2008. That led to my involvement in StarCraft II, the subsequent WoW expansions and Diablo III. Blizzard’s audio director Russell Brower has been a big part of my involvement and I can’t thank him enough for that. I feel like a lot of my best work has been for Blizzard due in no small part to the inspiring worlds they create and the dedication everyone there has to making the best games possible.

What’s it like to be composing music for a Sci-Fi TV Show one week and a medieval/fantasy video game the next? How do you balance all these different story elements within the music? Must be quite the challenge as the series has such in depth characters and complex storylines?

The variety of stories I get to be a part of telling and the worlds I get to play in musically is what makes this job so fun and as much as it can be an enormous challenge at times, I live for those moments when everything falls into place and the music practically writes itself. The reality is, as complex as a storyline might be in a show, film or game, more often than not the emotion is right there on the screen and it’s just a matter of finding something that resonates with it. I live for the challenge. There are aspects to some scenes/stories that feel like you’re solving a puzzle and when everything lines up, it feels like it was meant to be that way all along even though it may have felt as though you made it up as you were going.

As a big Stargate SG1 fan, what was it like to work with Joel Goldsmith?

I often say that working for Joel was my first real world education because I got to learn on the job everything from synth programming and sample editing to scoring as I eventually became a co-composer on SG-1 and Stargate Atlantis. We wrote a lot of music in those years, all kinds of music for all kinds of dramatic situations and it was a great way to learn the craft of composing and to streamline the process. We delivered an average of 30 minutes of fully produced score per series, per week which is a lot of music. The Stargate shows were a lot of fun to work on because they covered a lot of ground over the years and gave us the chance to write in virtually every style and pay homage to a lot of my own sci-fi heroes.

Joel was very knowledgeable on a technical level and endlessly curious. Whatever he wasn’t able to teach me he encouraged me to learn on my own and even got his dad (Jerry Goldsmith) on the phone a few times to answer questions I had. Between the two of them there were two lifetimes of experience and getting to witness their interaction while they were both still around was something I’ll always treasure. He was more than just a friend and a mentor, he was family and I feel really proud to have known him as well as I did.

You have done music for games, movies and TV now. Which is your personal favorite? What would you like to do more of?

That’s a really tough question and I don’t think I’ll ever have a definitive answer. Part of the fun of being a composer is in the variety of creative challenges I get to take on. Though I love the process of writing for film/tv and the magic that happens when music meets picture, the freeform writing that sometimes happens in games can be very liberating. At the same time I’ve written a lot of music to picture in games and I’ve written plenty of freeform music in film. The scope and the delivery may vary but it’s all about telling stories and creating experiences and the differences in the stories in games and film are growing increasingly subtle.

I love the challenge of creating a film score that tells a story, develops a theme and resonates with the emotional heart of the film. A two hour film is a nice canvas to paint on in that sense. I also love the fact that the popularity of the games I’ve worked on has opened up so many doors and even brought me to Brazil recently to conduct my music to 3000 fans a night with other appearances in the works. The reach of games and the enthusiasm of it’s fans never ceases to amaze me. So which would I like to do more of? All of the above.

Of all the projects you got to work on, which one was your favorite?

Another tough question. If I had to pick one I’d say the recently released World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria because it gave me the opportunity to write in a style I’ve been waiting my whole life to try and it was endlessly inspiring to do so. The world of the game was an exotic tapestry of Asian influenced art and landscapes and the music was able to reflect that using authentic Eastern instruments blended with a traditional Western orchestra. The music is very melodic and sophisticated yet accessible, carried often by solo instruments like cello, bamboo flute, erhu and guzheng. It was a nice contrast to the darker stuff I had done for the previous expansions and is one of the things I’m proudest of having been a part of. Getting to work with Russell Brower, Sam Cardon, Edo Guidotti and Jeremy Soule was a real treat because everyone really brought their best to this one.

I’m also really proud of the forthcoming StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm which is a completely different score on every level. Lots of guitar, percussion and raw electronics mixed with ethnic vocals by Laurie Ann Haus and featuring the Skywalker Symphony and Chorus. It’s a lot darker but there is an emotional side to it as well. I’m really looking forward to sharing this one with everyone.

Do you have a process when you write? Melody first?

It depends on the piece and whether I’m writing something on it’s own or to picture. Melody is huge and I usually start there but sometimes the bed it sits on comes to me first. I have a tendency to think very rhythmically so often times I’ll start with a groove. In film the edit of the scene will usually dictate the pacing and structure of the music but I try to have a theme figured out before I start with the incidental music so if an opportunity presents itself to work it in, I do.

As for the process, it’s as instinctual as it is intellectual if not more so. I rarely find myself consciously thinking about what tempo or instruments to use. I suppose I used to do so more often but the more I’ve done this, the more I’ve learned to trust my instincts. Usually when writing to picture, I’ll pull up a string patch and watch the scene with a click going at a tempo that feels right and I’ll play along. Sometimes those first reactions can be the best an other times it might take multiple attempts to crack the code. As the idea begins to take shape I’ll flesh out the orchestration, adding accents and fine tuning the tempo to match the cuts. When doing an action cue or something a little more carefully timed I’ll often create a tempo and meter map first, mapping out points that I want to accent and build to then write around that. It’s a good way to take a long sequence and break it down into manageable sections swell as to see the arc of the scene before you start.

What changes do you foresee in the world of Movie/TV/Game Music within the next 10 years? Where are we going stylistically?

Personally, I think music is experiencing a devolution, both driven by the way people experience it and in how it’s created but it’s all cyclical to a degree. If you watch a movie from the 40′s compared to now, the difference in the way music is used to tell the story is night and day. It’s much more subliminal now but that goes with how stories are being told. The best example I can think of is looking at the Batman themes and movies of the last 25 years. Danny Elfman’s 1989 theme is melodic and exciting and is sonically as over the top and full of flair as Tim Burton’s visuals. Then look at Hans Zimmer’s Batman Begins theme. It’s raw, visceral and essentially only comprised of 2 chords yet is instantly recognizable. Taking that a step further is the Joker theme from The Dark Knight which is essentially one sustained note. It’s literally one note but gets under your skin as much as any theme could. Or, take Inception and it’s influence on trailer music. Most trailers now feature a single, repeating note, timed with the cuts to increase the impact of each image. It’s incredibly simple but nonetheless effective.

In recent years film music has borrowed more from the primitive, aboriginal roots of music than the classical but ultimately it comes down to creating an emotional experience for the viewer/player and there are no rules as to how that is done. Technology also has a role in how music has changed. Orchestration trends are increasingly influenced by what does and does not sound good on samples and by the fact that electronics can cover frequencies it used to take a full orchestra to fill out.

All that being said, though, we may soon reach a point where the cycle will bring us back to a point when more is more. Who knows? There’s only so much further music can devolve. Lush, notey scores have already started to come back almost as a novelty or a throwback so who knows where it’s headed. Audiences crave new experiences and will always gravitate towards something different yet familiar. Sound and the way it’s created evolves every day. It’s hard to say where things are headed but sound and the way music is created is what will change the most in the next 10 years.
Are you a gamer? It must be tough to find the time to play.

Yes and yes, it is, especially with a family but I try to play when I can. I grew up on games. My daughter is just about at an age where we can play stuff together so I’ve been exposing her bit by bit. Chances are she’ll end up being a geek just like me.

What are your all time favorite video games (maybe list 3) and what are your favorite game scores?

One of my favorite games is Star Wars: Battlefront II. I still play it even though it’s a little out of date but as a big Star Wars fan I enjoy playing in that world. Where else can you snipe Ewoks and blow up Tauntauns with and At-At? Halo is another favorite. Joel Goldsmith used to have a group game at his studio with multiple stations on a LAN. We’d play for a few hours a day. Lots of good memories. I’ve been playing Halo 4 lately. I played the original StarCraft a lot, actually. Little did I know I’d be writing music for it 12 years later.

Favorite game scores?

I’m not just saying this because I worked on them but I think Blizzard has done and continues to do some of the best stuff out there. I loved the original Halo soundtrack. It’s hard not to think of Super Mario Brothers which most of us played as kids if only as an appreciation for how simple and memorable it is despite the technological limits of the time. Bioshock was a great game score.

What do you do to relax and recharge your batteries?

Good question. I’m very work driven and tend to feel most relaxed when I’m getting something accomplished but in terms of recharging and refilling the creative well? Watching movies, traveling, enjoying good food, creating something, playing a game here or there when time permits. I’ve found that the more often I get out in the world and open myself up to new experiences, the richer my life feels and the more inspired I am.

What platform are you on (Mac/PC)? What equipment do you use for the score?

I’ve been an Apple user since I was a kid but for a while I was running 4 dedicated PCs with samples on them and a Mac as the DAW. Now all those sounds are on 2 Mac Pros, a 12 core running Logic/Pro Tools and an 8 core running Vienna Ensemble Pro with the samples. That’s essentially the setup. I’m a fan of keeping things simple and so far the 2 Mac setup has been the smoothest I’ve had.

How important is it these days to have live instruments in your recording? How much of what you do is samples, how much is live?

If it was up to me, all of it would be live. One of the reasons I became a composer was for the chance to hear my music played by a live orchestra and I’ve been very fortunate to have that happen a lot in recent years. I do occasionally augment the orchestra with samples but I try as much as possible to retain the character of the live sound, even when I’m doing something hybrid (orchestra and electronics). That being said, I’ve done a lot of work with simulated orchestra and it’s not only an integral part of my writing process (orchestrating and building the mockup as I write) sometimes it’s the only option for the final product.

What are your most used 8DIO instruments and why? How do you integrate 8DIO samples into the work?

I’ve been using the Rhythmic Aura instruments a lot lately. I love the subtle touch of a pitched, rhythmic pulse in music you wouldn’t otherwise expect to hear it. They’re great tools for taking the music to another level of cool. Epic Dhol is another must have for me. It’s very playable, has a great range and has a room ambience that adds depth to the music and I’ve used it on just about everything since I got it. Requiem is in my opinion the best choir library out there and Adagio Violins and Cellos are fantastic additions to the orchestral palette. The vocal libraries are great as well and even though I usually use my own vocalist on projects, it’s nice to have other options to fill in the holes.

Not to sound like a commercial but 8dio instruments for me have always been inspiring, intuitive and playable. You guys really get what we as composers are looking for.

What’s next for Neal Acree? What are you currently working on?

StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm, which will be out March 12th, 2013. That was a year and a half in the making for me and I’m really excited about it. I’m sworn to secrecy on my current projects but I’m hoping to be able to share some news soon.

Any last tips or advice for all the young and upcoming composers out there?

Be yourself and be as original as you can get away with. Want it enough to starve for it because it’s a tough business to break into and even tougher to stand out in. Know your craft and never stop learning. The best advice I can give though about longevity in the business is to be easy to work with. Be a problem solver. Know your clients needs and show them with confidence that you can work with them to achieve their goals. Stand out for your music, not your ego.

Neal Acree uses the following 8Dio products:
Adagio Cellos Vol.1, Adagio Violins Vol.1, Bazantar, Berimbau, Epic Taiko Ensemble, Hybrid Tools Vol.1, Hybrid Tools Vol.2, Metal Bowls, Post-Apocalyptic Guitar, Requiem Professional, Rhythmic Aura Vol.1, Rhythmic Aura Vol.2, Smiley Drum