On His Game

Most people go to great lengths to ensure that their recording studios are quiet. But not so with composer Jesper Kyd. Sirens, car alarms, and traffic
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Most people go to great lengths to ensure that their recording studios are quiet. But not so with composer Jesper Kyd. Sirens, car alarms, and traffic noise permeate his downtown Los Angeles loft studio, which has floor-to-ceiling windows that open to the symphony of the city several floors below.

That his studio feels like Manhattan is no accident. Kyd (www.jesperkyd.com), though a native of Denmark, is a recent, somewhat reluctant transplant from the Big Apple who has managed to locate himself on one of the few street corners in L.A. that has tall buildings, outdoor cafés, foot traffic, and a big-city feel.

Kyd (whose first name is pronounced “YES-per”) is best known for his work done on aggressive action adventure games such as IO Interactive/Electronic Arts Freedom Fighters and the IO Interactive/Eidos Hitman franchise — for which he composes music that gets inside the head of a brutal assassin. In contrast to the violent subject matter of many of the games he scores, Kyd's personality is polite, serious, and somewhat shy; he has an almost bookish demeanor — a dichotomy that makes sense when you delve into his rich body of music. His roots are in the dance scene, and he can turn out action cues with the best of them. But he's also a serious composer in the classical sense, as comfortable with live orchestras and Eastern European choirs as he is with synthesizers, computers, and the latest software.

People are starting to take notice of Kyd's music, now found in many best-selling titles and in promotional videos for game companies including Activision, Microsoft, and Konami, among others. His score for Freedom Fighters won a Best Original Music Award from the respected GameSpot Web site (www.gamespot.com) and was voted a finalist for the Billboard 2004 Digital Entertainment Award. Hitman 2: Silent Assassin received critical acclaim for Kyd's immersive soundtrack, including award nominations from the Internet Gaming Network (IGN), GameSpot, and GameSpy. His evocative blend of electronica, dark symphonic themes, and choral grooves in the Hitman: Contracts soundtrack has been called groundbreaking, and it won the award for Best Original Music in the 2005 BAFTA (British Academy of Film Television Arts) Games Awards (see Fig. 1).

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FIG. 1: Kyd was honored with the 2005 Best Original Music Award from the British Academy of Film Television Arts (BAFTA) for his work on the Hitman: Contracts soundtrack.

The game-sound world — often compared to the Wild West, with no boundaries and an anything-goes mentality — is growing by leaps and bounds. Kyd, who has been working in the genre for more than 12 years, came in on the ground floor. Now also working in film, he brings a unique perspective to both mediums.

Were you originally a gamer, or were you just looking for a place to get your music played?

Actually, those things happened at the same time. As a kid, playing video games, I was always fascinated by the music.

Really? Wasn't it just beeps and blings then?

No — it was different and very experimental. I like to make music that you can listen to many times without getting tired of it, which is what you need to do with games. With an unsuccessful game soundtrack, people mute the music. That happens quite a bit, and it's what I try to avoid. My goal is to make the kind of music that will draw an audience to the game.

You're originally from Copenhagen. Did you study music there?

I'm very much self-taught, but I also studied classical composition on piano, guitar, and even choir. I wasn't a music major, but I had years of note reading. I also had a strong passion for film, and I've made and directed short films. I tried to go to film school, but we have only a couple in Denmark and it's very difficult to get in.

So instead?

I had a band with my friend Mikael Balle, and we were also in a “demo” group called Silents Denmark. We toured and got involved in the demo-scene events in Europe. A demo is a computer-generated audio-video presentation, in which there's an artist who does graphics, a musician who does the soundtrack, and a programmer who puts it all together into a demonstration of everybody's abilities. It's like a video game, except you can't play it. You just sit back and watch. [For more information on demo scenes, go to http://www.theprodukkt.com/demoscene.html.]

We did tons of them, then we started doing concerts as well, playing for 3,000 to 5,000 people. It peaked for us around 1993. We felt we'd done something really good, and we decided that the next step was games. So, with a group of other people, we started a game company, and came to the United States. We were in Boston, then Hollywood, and then New York. At that time, I decided to stay on in New York and launch my studio, and they went back home and started the Hitman games.

But you stayed involved as the composer.

Yes. Now, not only do I compose, but I also work with game developers to come up with the systems to implement the music. I do much more than just make the music, because I have a passion for creating the best soundtrack possible — and the best interactive music experience.

What does your experience tell you about the effects that music has on a game?

I've been shouting for a long time: we need better game music! The effect that a good soundtrack can have on a title is huge, but too often, it's still secondary. A rich, entertaining soundtrack creates a deeper, more connective experience. It makes the game more addictive; you actually want to go into the game world to be immersed in the music. The Grand Theft Auto series music is a good example. Sometimes I play those games just to be in that world and listen to the music. That's a successful soundtrack.

What do you mean by “implementing” the music?

That means deciding when the music should play, how many times it should play, how it should fade in and out, which events in the game trigger what music, and when to have silence. It's building the atmosphere and the emotions of the game so that it's cohesive and entertaining instead of being annoying. It's a very important part of the process. If it's not implemented correctly, even a very good soundtrack won't be as effective as it could be.

So some composers just hand in their music and let other people implement it. But you prefer to be directly involved.

Yes. Because no matter how good your music is, if someone loops it 20 times in the wrong place, it won't sound good.

How do you work with people to implement your music?

With the Hitman games, I'm very involved with the team at IO in designing the way the music should play. We test, level by level, to see which ideas are good and which need to be changed.

I often go to Denmark to work with them, but we also email and talk on the phone. A lot of time is spent just playing the game, and then coming up with new ideas to tweak the music and make it as interesting as possible. New ideas always come to mind when you're playing the game over and over. Fortunately, I enjoy playing the games.

Do you feel that your music is part of the overall sound design?

Although I do lots of orchestral music, my roots are in electronic music. And in electronic music, the sound design always comes through.

Your music is very emotional, but some of it is also groove- and dance oriented.

Yes. Those are the extremes that I like to mix together.

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FIG. 2: Kyd''s score for the upcoming Hitman: Blood Money is pretty evenly split between symphonic and electronic elements.

How would you describe the score for your latest game,Hitman: Blood Money.

That was a big one, because it was a combination of electronic music and symphony. There was a big, wide spectrum of musical styles. It's difficult to mix the two in a progressive way. The orchestra is usually the main musical style, with a little electronic in the background. Or the electronic is the main component, and you have a bit of strings on top. I wanted to even it out to 50-50 (see Fig. 2).

It's a mix of different elements, with a 90-piece orchestra and a 60-piece choir, both of them recorded in Budapest, Hungary. The orchestra there has awesome players. They're not as precise as the players in Hollywood, but they are very expressionistic. They have their own kind of sound.

For the orchestra, do you work with an arranger and a copyist?

Yes. Arranger, copyist, conductor, translator. For big performances, I gather a team. On Freedom Fighters, for example, the lyrics are sung in an ancient language called Russian Latin. I used a French poet to write the lyrics, which she did in beautiful poems. Then we had them translated into Russian. For Robotech: Invasion and Hitman: Blood Money, we had a lot of Latin. I wrote all the lyrics and had them translated into Latin.

Do you know Latin? Did you know how it would sound?

No, not much. [Laughs.] The translator had to move things around to make sure it all made sense.

Are you nervous when you work with orchestras and choirs?

Freedom Fighters was nerve-wracking, because it was electronic music mixed with dance music mixed with a Latin choir. That made me nervous because, with electronic music, you can't tweak things — it has to work on the spot; the music just plays, and the vocalists have to sing to it.

With theHitmangames, you show the personality and thoughts of the main character, Agent 47, through the music. You show what he's thinking and feeling internally, rather than using music that only gives the audience an external sense of what a character is about.

Yes, I score more for the personality and the spirituality of the character. And the Hitman series is more about a mood setting and about how the main character feels rather than how we perceive him.

In games, you have the opportunity and the creative freedom to do those kinds of things. You can do it in film, of course, but then sometimes you're a slave to the image, and every frame has to fit with a little cue here and there. With a video game, every time you play it, you can play it differently, maybe four or five different ways. Of course, to do that, you can't score 30 hours of music. Even if you did, you can't make music that will fit every single element. There's always a new way for the player to do something, and when you're scoring, you have to keep all of that in mind.

In the Hitman series, there are always lots of different ways you can complete the game. So I decided to pull back and score with the emotion and atmosphere of the game. That way, if a player does something different, it won't sound like something is wrong, or missing. It will still have the Hitman feeling.

Obviously, you have action moments, tension, and suspense. You have to move around and be interactive. But in general, it's important to follow the path of the music that gives the correct atmosphere.

You've just finished scoring a horror movie calledStranger. How is scoring for a film different than scoring for a game?

When you're scoring for a movie, it's more specific. Because you have a finite picture, you know what works and what doesn't. With games, you're never quite sure. In movies, you do a lot of small bits and pieces for specific scenes. With games, you do more general, atmospheric tracks and try to convey moods.

How do you start composing for a game project?

I play the game a lot, and I think about what the developer is trying to express with the game. I'm looking for what that core is.

What are you composing to?

Most often to very early versions, which have minimal graphics and no sound — sometimes only skeletal structures. I just have to imagine everything and what would be appropriate. That's different than working on films, in which you can see how the movie is going to look. Also, a film often has temp music, or at least some kind of direction, because the music needs to follow the scene.

In video games, sometimes you barely have anything to refer to. For the first Hitman game, I wrote the entire score without seeing a single screen shot. I had only a background story and a few character sketches, nothing that gave me an idea of what the game was going to look like.

So the more material you have, the easier it is?

Well, when you have more to sink your teeth into, you can tell if the music fits or not. With a movie, you know if it's completely off. With a video game, you have to be more abstractly creative.

What do you write first?

I like to get the themes right. That sets the mood of the track, and you can follow that mood.

How long are the pieces?

It depends. With games, people sometimes ask you for a 30-second suspense cue here or a 15-second stinger there. But for the Hitman games, we always focused on making music that was longer. There are a lot of 6- or 7-minute tracks. I think that's a good way to do it. When everything is short, you never get to enjoy the music. And what can you say in 30 seconds? In Hitman, we have progressions that start somewhere, go through A and B themes, and come back with a big choir on top.

That's what I like to listen to, so that's the perspective I take. I'm always in the perspective of the game player. It has to fit the game, of course, but it has to be enjoyable to listen to.

Do you have to deal with the memory issues, or is that someone else's department?

I do have to think about that, but not so much anymore. With all the different compression formats these days, you can have big soundtracks. It was different when soundtracks were chip based. Obviously, there were a whole set of limitations then. But now that music is CD based, the challenges are more about the way the music interacts within the game, and the way the tracks change and fit together.

A game usually takes anywhere from 10 to 15 hours [for the player] to complete; Sometimes it can take 60 to 100 hours. When you start a project, you have to think about that. If gamers are spending 100 hours, and 10 of those are in the shop buying weaponry or upgrading a weapon, you don't want to have a 30-second cue playing there. They'll turn that off very quickly!

So you maybe want to do a 5-minute piece, with 10 variations that are 30 seconds each taken from it. A lot of it is figuring out how much music is needed for how much game time.

Your music manages to squeeze a lot of powerful low end into computer-size speakers.

That's the sound designer in me. I'm always aware of the entire EQ spectrum; it's there to be filled and enjoyed. When you write music, it's important to be thinking about where, physically, the emotion is coming from. Is it the stomach? The head?

You can do a lot of interesting stuff with EQ. My experience with dance music helps me with that, where you often have your hi-hat on the high end, your low bass, and in the middle is the dynamics. That's a good approach, and I use it with my orchestral tracks, too. It can make you feel things that you don't necessarily hear.

Reverbs are very important to your music.

I'm a big fan of effects. I use the Kurzweil KSP8 a lot, which is a standalone unit from the flagship Kurzweil 2500 series made into an effects unit. It has a joystick remote, and it's easy to move things around in the field and to program. I also like a lot of the convolution reverb software, such as Waves IR-1, with simulated rooms and environments.

A lot of pop music today is very dry, but I like its big atmospheric sound. Themes are great, and fun to write, but it's more important to get the atmosphere right. A lot of games and movies have too many themes. You just need a couple; the rest is atmosphere. That doesn't mean it has to be boring. Atmosphere doesn't necessarily mean ambient. It can have depth and be entertaining.

What do you record to?

A Digidesign Pro Tools Digi 002. And I do most of my work in Steinberg Cubase. When Amiga went away, I started with Cubase VST 3, and then VST 5, which I still love. I'm using SX2 now, but I still have a soft spot for 5. And I use a [MOTU] MIDI Timepiece AV.

For me, it's important for MIDI to be perfect. A program may have great new audio features, but it has to be kick-ass MIDI or I'm not interested.

People used to complain because MIDI time wasn't perfect. Well, if you want to make a perfect tight beat, don't do it in MIDI. For me, MIDI adds a little funkiness. I don't think everything has to be that tight, and I rarely quantize anything I record. I just play it and leave it. If I don't like it, I play it again. I don't like to edit for timing unless I'm doing something that has to have a lot of really tight, on-the-beat rhythms. Then I do a lot of programming. But generally, if it's music that needs to sound real, I would rather not program it at all.

What keyboard do you compose on?

It's a weighted keyboard, a Pro Mega 3. It's a piano really, with beautiful sounds, made by the Italian organ company GeneralMIDI.

I was surprised to see so many keyboards here.

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FIG. 3: Kyd in his L.A. studio, which features six computers, numerous keyboards, and a Yamaha 02R as its nerve center.

My philosophy is the more the better. You like what a certain keyboard does, and you use it just for that. Then you come across another keyboard that does the same kind of thing, but it sounds completely different; suddenly you need both. That's kind of how it started. Like the Yamaha VL1, which is very interesting and does acoustic modeling — mostly brass and flutes. Or my Yamaha CS80, which is like the one used by Vangelis in the '80s. It's like an old organ. It has no real memory, just latches that you can use to duplicate and save four custom sounds. And it weighs 250 pounds! Another old one I like is the Oberheim OBX-A.

I see you have a lot of hardware synths as well as software synths.

I like to do both. I have a lot of computers; five PCs and one Apple G5 (see Fig. 3). I keep up-to-date with software. I enjoy Native Instruments Reaktor 5 and Kontakt 2, and, of course, Cubase. There are certain things the software can do that hardware just can't. And software has almost limitless possibilities.

For some people, limitless possibilities are a problem. They like to narrow the playing field.

Not me; I use it all. My computers are basically like synthesizers.

Do you mix in the computer?

No, I use my Yamaha O2R; everything goes through it. I'm not happy with my mouse for mixing. Some of my friends do everything on their laptop. They sit there staring at the screen and the mouse. But I can't imagine making good music that way. If it's just that little screen and mouse, where does the inspiration come from? This whole setup makes me want to do good music. I find it inspiring to tweak knobs.

Of course, there are lots of things I do with a mouse. But if I'm programming an instrument, after ten minutes, that gets really boring and I may decide to move on. But if you sit with a keyboard, or knobs, you can tweak a lot longer and it's fun. Hardware is the thing for that. It's definitely not going away.

What's coming up next for you?

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Composing the scores for the Hitman series has helped establish Kyd as a top-level game composer.

Well, Hitman: Blood Money is coming out soon. And I'm working on my first album, which is very exciting. It's electronic music with beats, but not necessarily for the dance-music crowd only. I'm doing it in New York, with a producer and live musicians, which is different for me. I've also just finished scoring a really cool short film called Impulse. It's tough to explain, but it's about a guy planning his own death in very careful, technical detail.

Maureen Droney's engineering credits include Carlos Santana, Aretha Franklin, Kenny G, and Tower of Power, among many others. Currently, she is the Los Angeles editor for Mix magazine and general manager of House of Blues Studios.


Hitman: Blood Money (Eidos, 2006)

Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory (Ubisoft, 2005)

Robotech: Invasion (Take 2, 2004)

Hitman: Contracts (Eidos, 2004)

Freedom Fighters (Electronic Arts, 2003)

Hitman 2: Silent Assassin (Eidos, 2002)

Hitman: Codename 47 (Eidos, 2000)