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Orchestrating History: Tomb Raider Composer Peter Connelly On Soundtracking Games

“There is still a majority mindset that John Williams can be matched for peanuts”

If you’re a die hard Tomb Raider fan then the sounds of the series are just as iconic as Lara’s tank top and ponytail. Part of that legacy is British composer Peter Connelly, responsible for the soundtracks of The Last Revelation, Chronicles and The Angel of Darkness which he co-produced with Martin Iveson. 

In the early 2000’s games were sophisticated enough to warrant orchestral soundtracks, but still relying heavily on synthesized substitutes. The Angel of Darkness, while failing to light fans hearts on fire with its gameplay, broke the mold of the time by recording with the London Symphony Orchestra and Peter is now bringing his last Tomb Raider soundtrack up to the modern era with The Dark Angel Symphony, which passed its crowdfunding goal earlier this month.  We caught up with him on the campaign trail to talk about the past and future of composing for games.

 

What formal training do you have in music, and how did you decide to apply your talents to games?

I don’t have a huge amount of formal training but, when I was younger, I was classically trained on Piano, Guitar and Cello but gave up these when hitting secondary school. I re-found my love of music towards the end of secondary school when the technological aspect of it drew me back in.

How has your composition style evolved throughout your career in the industry?

I feel I have gotten a little lazier [laughs] but I’m thinking this is because of how far technology has come on since I first started out as in it’s a lot easier and quicker to sound more polished and realistic than it was back in the day. I can achieve the same in minutes that used to take hours or days.

For Tomb Raider, what touchstones did you use to decide the themes/motifs for each game?

Initially I used visual inspiration. I would look at a lot of visuals and try letting my hands work to these visuals. Other times I would listen to classical music to learn to understand how a symphony orchestra works and work my sound from that, so a lot of the sounds in Tomb Raider have a very similar sound and setup to a large symphony orchestra. Obviously, from that I would mould the sound to work from within synths or samplers.

Where did you draw inspiration from?

I loved listening to soundtracks by Hans Zimmer, John Williams and Danny Elfman. These gave me a lot of inspiration when writing although I do remember listening to The Mummy a fair bit to help inspire me throughout Tomb Raider 4: The Last Revelation. This helped keep me focused.

Why are you keen to remaster the sounds of the previous generation of Tomb Raider for The Dark Angel Symphony?

With the technology, personnel and experience I have 20 years on, I just know I can get these to sound EXACTLY as I wanted them. Back then, time was against us and it wasn’t just music I was involved with… I was pretty much involved with everything audio, so the disciplines needed to be shared equally which hindered me from putting in 100% to all disciplines.

How do you approach developing a cohesive feel for what a game world like Driver San Francisco should sound like?

I like to build audio up from the foundations then layer it. It doesn’t matter where you start as long as, when you’re mixing, you start from the ground up. Throw it all in, get it sounding right on its own then you’re halfway there… the next task is to get all the elements working together.

Full orchestral soundtracks are still quite rare in games, what do you see as the limitations preventing this?

Budgets!!! There is still a majority mindset that John Williams can be matched for peanuts without the resources and use of a real orchestra. A lot of developers are delusional, you get what you pay for. If you want it to sound like John Williams, you need to be prepared to invest heavily into audio and truly believe audio will make a difference – because doing it properly isn’t cheap. Everyone wants everything for free, yesterday. That frame of mind needs to change as it’s getting out of control and is starting to alienate a lot of composers that have bills to pay and have a family to feed.

Whose work do you admire in the field at the moment?

Richard Niles. I have always loved the work of Niles – it’s why I’m doing The Dark Angel Symphony – but, as I now have the desire to utilize his talents for the symphony, I’m listening back to a lot of his work and I am still astounded now as I was back then. I also love the work of William, Elfman and Zimmer… whatever they put their mind to, turns into pure gold.

If you could take a crack at composing for any game series, past or present, which would you be most excited about?

I have it in my head that I will scoring an Assassins Creed game sometime down the line so, who knows, maybe after TDAS, but I always regret not being in on the C64 scene. I would’ve loved to have worked on a successful game in which the music is still remembered. It was a great era to be part of.

Hearing Connelly talk about his inspirations certainly makes us look forward to this upcoming symphony and more. He has tackled other great games as well. Alongside acting as sound designer on Driver: San Francisco and audio lead on Watch_Dogs, Peter’s career spans over 20 years from his first gig adapting board games like Risk and Battleship for the NES  back in 1996.

We cannot wait to hear what the future holds, both for Lara and for Mr.Connelly!