An Interview With John Broomhall

An Interview With John BroomhallPreface: John Broomhall is a multi-faceted independent music and audio creative with many years’ experience in both the music and videogames industries, a number of senior in-house and outsourced management roles under his belt and dozens of published titles to his credit. He is a composer/producer, audio director/consultant, sound effects designer and voice director, as well as an accomplished live and studio session keyboard player, bass & drums programmer, composer, producer and songwriter (published by Allied Songwriters/Notting Hill Music).

His prolific career, which also includes working as a game development manager, encompasses contributions to global hits such as the original X-COM series (composer); Chris Sawyer’s Transport Tycoon series (composer); Geoff Crammond’s Grand Prix series; MechWarrior 3; B17 Flying Fortress 1 & 2; Superman, American Idol/Pop Idol, Football Manager, Wallace & Gromit (DVD game), New International Track & Field, Heavenly Sword, Guitar Hero DLC, and Forza 4 (Jeremy Clarkson speech recording).

Broomhall has chaired many BAFTA Audio Awards and until recently sat on the BAFTA Videogames Committee for the maximum allowable years. He regularly speaks about game audio at seminars, conferences and universities. He organises and chairs the annual Develop Conference Audio Track, writes a monthly column for well-known industry magazine, Develop, and is a contributor to pro-audio publications Audio Media and Audio Technology as well as sitting on the Editorial Board of academic journal The New Soundtrack.

He has served on Skillset’s Game Forum and advised on the National Occupational Standards for both Interactive Media and Sound. In 2002, he set up Broomhall Projects Ltd and in 2009 was honoured with a Recognition Award by the Game Audio Network Guild of America. In 2011, he was asked to give the keynote address at the Audio Engineering Society’s conference in London and in 2013 took part in two conference sessions at AES49 – Audio For Games. He was also a judge on the Music and Sound Awards for videogames.

Q1: What was your first ever games console? Broomhall’s first experiences of home computers and gaming consoles came courtesy of his network of mates with whom he recalls spending many happy hours playing the likes of PONG. It wasn’t until much later that he acquired his own Commodore Vic20 (3K of RAM!) and later still, a PlayStation 1. Looking back, he reflects that, though they may have been vital for player feedback, the now iconic sound effects and music of the time were so lo-fi, that it never crossed his mind writing music for games was something he’d eventually end up doing.

Q2: Noting your first experiences with the games consoles that you have mentioned to us, where did your passion for music originate from, and how did the technology influence you? Broomhall’s passion for music originated in his childhood as he grew up surrounded by very musical family members. As soon as he could physically reach the piano, he started playing music himself and in his early teens developed his own musical ideas, noting them down in any form he could until he encountered friends with recording technology enabling him to document them as actual audio. Whilst he hoped a full-time career in music could be possible, at that time he nevertheless had to face the reality of music as a secondary occupation, albeit at a professional recording studio level, working with various artists, song-writing, composing and session keyboard playing. It was during the 90s that Broomhall first wrote music for games, having being hired as an in-house composer at the now legendary MicroProse Software.

Once at MicroProse, he immediately encountered the severe technology limitations of the time and says that writing music was only half the battle. Making it sound good on the game formats of the time was in itself a big challenge and the role of Andrew Parton (Audio Programmer, MicroProse) was essential in helping Broomhall translate his musical compositions on to the games hardware, until digital playback of CD quality music in games became established. He recalls that, though problematic, creating music for the PC soundcards of the day was a less esoteric affair than dealing with SEGA and Nintendo formats…

Despite many a ‘rush job’ Broomhall recounts that working in-house – there was often an extended period of time available for music composition allowing composers like him to explore creative ideas until they felt they’d produced something standout from the crowd. It was a good time to be a games composer, getting a regular cheque for doing something that he loved. These days, many composers find themselves under much more time pressure, although certainly not in every case as in the enlightened team behind the latest Tomb Raider game who worked with composer, Jason Graves, from very early on in the project. He actually created an overture so that everyone could agree and understand the directionality of the music before he dug in to all the detailed in-game music requirements.

Q3: When and how do you get inspiration, and how do you deal with writer’s block? Broomhall says that often musical ideas come to him when he’s not actually trying to write music – for instance, in the middle of the night! He laughs that perhaps his brain needs time to compute input about the project and when this gestation time is finished, the idea eventually materialises in whatever place he happens to be at whatever time… He cites the example of the original Transport Tycoon PC game – a project he talks about with much affection. Having been looking at and thinking about the project for some time, he woke up at 4am whilst on holiday with well over half the tunes that eventually made it in to the game, running around his head. He got up and documented them as best he could on his trusty Dictaphone – only later translating and transcribing them back in the studio.

All that said, Broomhall does strongly believe in the value of images of game play, scenes and characters, both moving and static, for inspiring music ideas. He finds that many times, seeing images and game sequences playing looped on a secondary computer monitor as he sits at the keyboard composing can help cause a creative spark. He cites this as being very much the case for recent composition work undertaken for a Xbox One launch title.

He says that occasionally writer’s block does indeed strike and when it does, he likes to take a step back and remember the phrase ‘less is more’. He believes that sometimes you can smother the original idea with multiple layers of instrumentation and end up clouding the issue. Then it can be useful to simply strip the layers back to your original thought.

Q4: In your opinion, how has the relationship between music for the moving image and dedicated music for game sequences changed within the past decade? Broomhall thinks there’s a general sense that music for games has come of age. Previously, there was a distinct gulf between the quality of film music and that of game music, but this is most decidedly no longer the case. Just as with blockbuster films, games are deploying some of the finest composers, musicians, recording studios and production talent in the world. Games have learnt a lot from the use of music in movies which after all, have been around a lot longer and therefore practitioners have had more time to develop a language and grammar of music use. But there are now many similarities between music in games and film – however, one central aspect differentiates them and that is that games are interactive – it is a non-linear medium. If you want the music in your game to respond to the action on screen in the same way as might happen in a linear movie, you have to think carefully. The music has to be structured in such a way that it can be cued in somewhat analogous to a theatre play. So working in games, composers will almost certainly encounter this additional challenge, compared with film.

Q5: After receiving the brief for any project, what utilities do you turn to for the purpose of jotting down your inspiration? Broomhall captures his raw ideas in two main ways. Firstly, he is a strong believer in singing/beatboxing melodies and rhythms into a Dictaphone or Smartphone. Secondly, as an accomplished pianist, he will sometimes work at the piano, although this method he feels can introduce a potential pitfall. He states there is a danger of muddying a pure idea with overly complex voicing via the well-trodden paths of patterns that a piano player’s fingers tend to naturally fall in.

Q6: If you were Superman and could change one thing about the industry that you are in, what would you change, and have you ever used the ‘Wilhelm scream’? Broomhall says he’d love to hear more jazz in games (grins) adding that another thing that would be good to see develop in games is a dedicated post-production period for the finalisation, tweaking and polishing of all audio content and its implementation, including music. He thinks the Wilhelm phenomenon is hilarious but no, he hasn’t used it. Yet.

Q7: For artists, payment usually isn’t just the main focus of their career choice because passion plays a huge part. What other rewards do you get personally from working in music? When things are going well, the process of creating and recording music is in itself, something that provides Broomhall enjoyment and satisfaction. He also finds it rewarding when the game is being reviewed positively and sales figures are high, providing a sense of accomplishment that a game is well-received and enjoyed by gamers. In some instances, he’s been humbled and touched to discover fans of his music not only posting segments of it on YouTube, but even making videos of themselves performing it. Finally, he mentions the many emails he’s received over the years, adding that he finds it amazing that someone would actually take the time and trouble to tell you they enjoyed your musical output – he really appreciates it.

Q8: Out of all the composers of music for games, who is your favourite? John really could not name one particular composer but did mention that several of his favourites are coming to the inaugural Game Music Connect event ( taking place on September 9th at the South Bank’s Purcell Room in London, England which is aimed at fans of music in games, aspiring and professional composers of all backgrounds and those interested in learning about the art and science of creating today’s cutting edge video game soundtracks. Game Music Connect will host a distinguished line-up of British and international A-list composer talent featuring Martin O’Donnell (Destiny, Halo series), Jason Graves (Tomb Raider, Dead Space series,Resistance: Burning Skies), Jesper Kyd (Assassin’s Creed series, Hitman series, Borderlands series), James Hannigan (Dead Space 3, Command & Conquer series, Harry Potter series),Richard Jacques (Mass Effect, James Bond 007: Blood Stone, LittleBigPlanet 2) and Joris de Man (Killzone series) – and will be hosted by John himself.

Also taking part will be leading audio directors from both independent and major developers and publishers include Paul Lipson (Composer & Music/Audio Director – Microsoft Studios), Alastair Lindsay (Music Production Manager – Sony Computer Entertainment Europe WWSE), Martin O’Donnell (Audio Director/Composer – Bungie Studios), Steve Lord (Head of Audio – Jagex) as well as freelance audio director Adele Cutting (founder of SoundCuts and former EA Audio Director). The day’s programming will comprise of in-depth discussions with these celebrated composers and audio directors, including insights into their diverse career paths and scoring experiences as well as practical demonstrations of interactive music and previews of next-gen original scores. The day will feature a composer panel exploring the evolution of video game music and a philosophical discussion of the art form and its future.

Q9: Was there ever one particular project that you would consider as the one that got away? Unfortunately, Broomhall can’t answer this question with specifics because invariably when a composer is talking to a games company about a possible project, all discussion takes place under the constraints of a confidentiality agreement, also known as a non-disclosure agreement. He counts himself to have been very fortunate to work on some amazing videogame titles, the majority of which he’s really wanted to be involved with. But of course, as in any other creative industry, inevitably there are the occasional disappointments.

Q10: With a brief history of how you came to be in the position that you are in today, what small pieces of advice would you offer young aspiring composers or producers to help them understand if it is the right path for them to be on? Broomhall got his very first session keyboard booking in a local studio after making a demo and playing it to the studio owner, then checking in with him as often as he dared to see if there were any opportunities. Finally, the day came when there evidently were no other keyboard players in town and the studio owner had to give him a try! That was Broomhall’s chance to prove his talent to him and show that he could write music to brief and record it quickly. Sometime later, a similar process happened when he applied for an in-house composer role at MicroProse Software. He submitted bespoke music demos based on sample briefs given to him and he says thankfully, they liked his music enough to offer him a job writing for them full-time. Broomhall then went on to develop an interest in the other elements of game audio – sound design and dialogue – and as the fortunes and output of the company blossomed, opportunities came to manage what was an increasingly expansive music and sound provision for the games created in-house, as well as those MicroProse published which were created externally.

Broomhall’s advice to aspiring composers is to be very realistic about your talents and ability to be creative on demand, dynamic, and able to work to strict deadlines. He says don’t try to be a ‘jack of all trades’ musically but recognise any specialisms that you may have – you can’t necessarily be good at all styles of music. Assuming you realistically appraise your music as being as good as that which you hear in today’s videogames composed by the kind of top level talent appearing at Game Music Connect, then the next important factor is, what are you like to work with? It’s important to understand that making games is essentially a team effort so you have to be able to collaborate effectively.

If perhaps your music isn’t quite as good as it needs to be to compete in the market, then why not continue enjoying music for its own sake and explore the other avenues within videogames audio production which can be extremely interesting and creatively rewarding e.g. music implementation/integration into the game, dialogue recording/production and of course, sound effects design.

Q11: Thematic material in film music has given way to effect and quick edit. Can game music revive melody? It’s an interesting question because game music is often used in a very ‘cinematic’ way so you will quite often find very atmospheric ambient material being used for scene setting and evoking mood – and that’s absolutely fine and appropriate in many situations. However, there are lots of opportunities for strong use of melody in games. Broomhall wouldn’t necessarily say games will revive melody, but hopes they will help keep it alive!

Edd Harris

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