Nathan McCree is a music composer and sound effects editor
for various multimedia projects. Nathan wrote the iconic music for Tomb Raider
1-3 and a few weeks ago I had the pleasure of speaking with Nathan about his
work at Core Design.
Here is a full transcription of the interview.
First of all, thank you for giving me this chance to discuss your work on the iconic soundtrack for Tomb Raider! How did you become a musician and how did you start working at Core Design?
I grew up in a family which was musical. Particularly my Dad and I began singing in a church choir when I was just a little lad. So I did a lot of singing. I started learning the piano when I was nine and started writing music when I was about 13. I wanted to be in a band; leave school at 16 years old and do the rock and roll lifestyle but that wasn’t to be. My dad said I had to go to university so off I went. I studied music along the way; did O level and A level music and all the grades on the piano but at university I studied computer programming; software engineering. I was quite into maths, I quite liked that. And so, when I finished my degree I was applying for jobs as a programmer. As luck would have it my first programming job was at the games development company, Core Design in Derby. The first project by boss put me on was to code a music sequencer for the SEGA Megadrive – like Cubase or Protools but obviously a much smaller, condensed version. I finished that a little ahead of schedule and so I said to Jezza (Jeremy Heath-Smith, owner of Core Design), I’ll write some music on it and show you what it can do, so I did that. When listened to it he said, “Wow that’s brilliant mate, do you want to do the music for our next game?” Of course I said yes. So I started working as a composer with them four months after I’d started, writing music for Asterix… “Asterix and the Great Rescue”, I think it was. So that was my first project, well, first music project anyway.
Well no. I mean, there’s always that chance and I guess that was always in the back of my mind. Whenever you’re writing music for a project, there’s always a chance that, if it’s going to be sold publicly, that it’s going to be picked up by a load of people and then you get catapulted into fame and fortune. So yeah that was always in the back of my mind but it wasn’t something I consciously thought about with Tomb Raider at all, it was just another project like all the others I’d been working on. I was doing quite a lot of projects at that time, certainly in excess of 6 projects a year. I think, a year before that, we were turning out about a project every month. Myself and Martin Iveson were really busy, we were writing music like crazy in all sorts of different styles so it was just another project. Previously, for two years before Tomb Raider, I’d been doing a lot of orchestral projects; Soulstar, Heimdall, Swagman. So I’d been practicing or perfecting my orchestral ensembles and when Tomb Raider came along it was given to me automatically because I was doing all the orchestral stuff. Martin was doing mostly electronic, dance and rhythm based music, I tended to do mostly orchestral, story-telling music. Toby was looking for orchestral music so he automatically came to me. But no, I had no idea it was going to be big, I don’t think any of us did.
Tomb Raider is largely inspired by Indiana Jones. What was the inspiration for the soundtrack? Did your inspiration change from game to game?
Well for the first game the inspiration was Lara Croft’s character. I talked to Toby quite a lot about what she was like, what her personality was like and from that I tried to describe her musically wherever we were in the game, whatever was going on. I tried to add some sense of beauty to the music. Lara is also classy, intelligent, confident and quite a powerful woman so I was trying to get all those “buzzwords” or emotions into the music. So that was the kind of raw inspiration or direction for the Tomb Raider music. I think most composers draw from their own experiences with music, things that they’ve listened to throughout their life and they are influenced by that music and those influences come out in the music that they write. I think every composer does this. For me with Tomb Raider, I drew a lot from my choral background singing in churches, which is why you hear choral voices in Tomb Raider in many places. I’m quite a big fan of what we call “four-part harmony” which is soprano, alto, tenor and bass. As for how the inspiration changed between Tomb Raider I, II and III… it certainly did change for a number of reasons. I guess the first reason was that technically we’d done the first Tomb Raider game and so now I had a better idea of how we could structure the music better, how we could trigger it better, how it could be more interactive than it was before and how it could be closer to a film score. So I was working more with the technology in mind with Tomb Raider II. You will notice that many of the cues are smaller and there are more of them; they’re triggered more frequently when enemies jump out from the corner or something like that. There was much more of this in Tomb Raider II than in Tomb Raider I, because with Tomb Raider I we were just chucking stuff in you know, there was very little time, it was a case of ‘get it in and get it working’. With Tomb Raider II we had more time to develop that technology so the music changed accordingly. It became more location specific, the Venice tune is a good example… We had this new product and this new technology where you’re looking at the character on screen interacting with a 3D world, that had never been done before…and to my knowledge it was the first time music was being used to describe specific locations in a game. So the music was gradually taking shape, I was gathering music for specific moments in the game; for when Lara uncovered something new, when she was climbing a wall, when she was surprised… I was building the repertoire. Then Tomb Raider III came along and there was even more of that going on – in Tomb Raider there were 7 music cues, Tomb Raider II had 27 cues and Tomb Raider III had 48. The number of music cues was almost doubling with each successive game, and as a result I was able to describe the game better each time. I had more musical content to select from and use to describe particular moments in the game. With Tomb Raider III the technology again affected the style of the music. It was becoming more and more fragmented as I could position the music in many more interactive situations than in the first one. It became more flexible. The location specific themes were more apparent too with Tomb Raider III.
Yeah the called me and I went to Core and saw all my old friends. At this time Gavin Rummery who was lead coder and designer on Tomb Raider 2 and a coder on Tomb Raider1, he was now studio head! He was running Core Design! So you know he was my mate, so I went in to see him in his office and I said “Alright Gav, you’ve got Jezza’s desk!” [he laughs] So yeah he was sitting at Jezza’s desk which was quite funny. So we talked about the project and I prepared an audio specification for them and a quote and it was all set to go into production but before I’d actually done any work the project was moved to Crystal Dynamics and that was the end of that!
How many Tomb Raider themes (for all the games) did you create before the team decided which one they’d use?
One. You know, the team didn’t decide what music to use. I decided what music to use. Games were made very differently back then; it was 20 years ago. Basically if an artist drew a picture and he wanted it to go somewhere in the game, it went in. Nobody said “oh can you change it or can you draw it a bit more like this”. He was the artist and he decided what went in graphically. Similarly I was the composer and I decided what went in musically. And that’s how it worked. It was quite a small team. We were all pals with each other and we trusted each other to make the right decisions.
We know now how difficult it was for Core to push out a Tomb Raider game every year. How difficult was it for you to come up with a new soundtrack?
Well personally I didn’t find it a problem creatively. The main problem I had was lack of time. On Tomb Raider I, I think I had a month only to write all the music. On TR 2 I think I had 2 months and on TR 3 it was a little bit over 3 months, maybe 4 months because there was quite a lot of video work in TR 3 as well which took quite a bit of time. So it wasn’t difficult in terms of thinking of material. That was just no problem at all. I’ve never really had a problem thinking of ideas or thinking of melodies and harmonies. That’s just not a problem for me at all. The problem was how I was going to get all of this music written and implemented in the time that I’d got. That was my problem.
If you had the chance, would you change anything about the final versions of your soundtracks?
Yes. I’d change everything in terms of production because the equipment that I had and the budget that was given to me to make the soundtracks was really small. I just had a couple of synthesizers and that was it. If I was going to do the same thing again I would hire a live orchestra and I would do it properly. Jeremy didn’t give me that budget and he didn’t see the value in doing that while I was on the project. It wasn’t until TR 6 [the Angel of Darkness] that he decided to pull in a live orchestra. That’s okay. It was a good move, but I think a little bit too late because, you know, after 6 the project was moved.
If Lara Croft would have been a male character (as it was planned at some point) would the soundtrack have changed significantly?
It would’ve been very different. I wouldn’t write a beautiful piece of music for a man or a male hero. I’d write something tougher, more handsome than beautiful. If you could describe the difference musically that would be one way of doing it. When you think about franchises like James Bond, Indiana Jones or any other male character theme tune, you wouldn’t say those pieces are beautiful, would you?
No, not really.
Exactly. They’re not beautiful pieces of music. They’re strong, courageous, adventurous pieces of music and those are the kind of emotions that they push forward. They don’t push forward beauty. So, had Tomb Raider been a male character, the music would have course been different.
Do you have any thoughts on the Female Icon album?
Yes, I heard about this when it was being made. It was quite a long time ago, wasn’t it?
1997 I believe?
Yeah, I remember I was still at Core when it was being made and I remember hearing one or two tracks that had come to us for review. They were pre-production mixes I believe, not final mixes, but yeah, I did hear a couple of tracks. I can’t actually remember what they were like. I remember I wasn’t overly impressed though [he laughs].
I wrote that in 2000. I was doing a lot of writing then but not for any specific projects. I had left Core because I wanted to work for myself. I wanted to create my own music and try to make a living from that. So around this time I was just writing music – and lots of it. And to be honest, I thought quite naively, “Oh I’ve just done three Tomb Raiders I’m bound to get loads of work now”, well, that didn’t happen. I just sat in my studio for about two years and wrote loads of music. I had a few contracts during that time, but nothing financially significant. Eventually I realised that I was running out of money and I thought, “Shit maybe I should go and try to find some work”. So I did! Anyway it was in those two years, you see when I was just writing music that I wrote “In The Dark”. It was Tomb Raider inspired, but it wasn’t written for a particular Tomb Raider project. I was thinking about Tomb Raider when I was writing it though. I was enjoying being creative and being free I guess. I wasn’t being told what to write or having to write in a particular style, I was just sat at my keyboard thinking “okay let’s just start writing something and see where it goes” and that was one of those pieces.
Were there any tracks were cut from the games?
No. Everything I wrote went in. There wasn’t much time Ash, so I had to write stuff as fast as possible and I really had to use everything because even using everything, there still wasn’t enough material to properly cover the game.
Were there any limitations put on you as a composer?
Yeah, the equipment I was using. Everything I wrote for Tomb Raider was recorded using synthesizers of the time. With these machines, there is a limitation in the number of voices that they can produce simultaneously. It is known as polyphony in the trade. Each sound on the synths that I used could utilise up to four different voices. Some sounds used all those four voices. So when I pressed one note on the keyboard, four voices were being used. If I played a triad – a three note chord, with a sound that uses all four of its voices, I was using twelve voices just with those three notes. The synths I was using had 64-note polyphony which means they could play 64 voices simultaneously. Now, if I play a 10 note chord (with a 4-voice sound), if I’ve got all of my fingers down on the keyboard, I’m using 40 voices. You can see now that very quickly I am going to run out of voices. When the synth runs out of voices, once I’ve used all 64 voices and they’re all playing, if I try to play another note, the machine has a priority policy which determines what happens when the machine gets full. This policy can be changed and edited by the user. It can be set to kill the oldest note first in order to play the new note, or it can be set to maintain playing the current notes and to only play the new note if there is a free voice. So what happens when you fill up the keyboard you start losing notes somewhere, either new notes don’t play or old notes get cut off. This is one of the limitations so you have to be careful about how many voices you are using. What I will do sometimes to save voices if I’m overusing my keyboards, where I’ve got big chords playing some string pad for example, if that string pad is made up of 4 voices for each note, I will edit that patch and I’ll deactivate 1 or sometimes 2 of the voices that I don’t need. They might be some kind of detail in the sound like the scratch of a bow when it hits the violin string for example. Depending on how I use that sound I might not need this detail so I can delete it by deactivating that voice saving myself 10 voices in my 10 note cord. Then I can play my violin solo for example over the top because I’ve freed up some voices. So these are the kind of limitations I had to work with and sometimes that slowed me down because I’d be writing, writing, writing, adding lots of instruments and suddenly I’d notice that the oboe is not playing all the notes of its melody for some reason, so I’d start diagnosing the problem. The oboe is playing on its own, but it’s not playing when everything else is playing. Why is that? Usually it’s because the synth has reached its 64-note polyphony limit. I’m overusing my keyboard! So I would check the function on the synth which monitors how many voices are being used – it’s basically a real-time diagnostics function. I’d check the diagnostics and this would show me which sounds are using the most voices and then I could plan how to fix the problem in order to get all my instruments playing at the same time. Sometimes that would involve deactivating voices in some of the sounds, sometimes it would involve changing priority settings. It is also possible to reserve a certain number of voices for a particular sound, so that a particular sound is guaranteed to play no matter what how many other voices are playing at that moment. By the time I’ve tested which strategy produces the best result I may have spent one or two hours programming the keyboards to get all my instruments to play properly. So those kind of limitations cost time and it was time I didn’t really have.
Oh wow I didn’t know all those details
Yeah, there’s a lot that goes on with producing a piece of music, there are thousands of things to think about. It is quite a complicated process. The actual music composition itself is relatively simple compared to dealing with the technology to make the bloody thing sound right!
Peter Connelly worked on soundtracks for TR 4-6 and he plans to do a remaster of those, are you going to do anything similar?
All I can say at this point in time is that I will be making a public announcement very soon [at PAX]. Just a little teaser – it’s going to be something big!
Did you listen to the Tomb Raider Anniversary soundtrack?
Yes I did.
What was your impression?
Well, it’s really lovely to hear someone else reproducing your music, because you hear their interpretation of your work which is fascinating and humbling at the same time. It is really a wonderful experience. I thought that Troels’ rendition of my music was done really well. It is quite clear that he had a lot more expensive equipment to use than I did… His interpretation was much grander than mine, I think if I had to do it again I don’t think I would make such a grand production like Troels Folmann, I think I’d still keep it quite minimalistic and intimate because that’s my style and personally, I think that my style fits Lara Croft better [he laughs], that’s just my personal choice, there’s nothing wrong with Troels’ music, I think it’s brilliant and I really enjoyed listening to his interpretations, I think they’re really well done.
It’s a personal thing really isn’t it? Some people like the original because it’s the first thing they heard. The first interpretation of a track that you hear carries all the memories and associations that you had at the time of hearing it. Maybe if I’d have heard Troels’ covers first I’d have thought that they were better than Nathan McCree’s, who knows.
Have you heard the new Rise of the Tomb Raider soundtrack by any chance?
The very latest one? I heard what I understand to be the main theme which was on Soundcloud, because they released it ahead of the game
Yeah I think so.
Yeah. Again, it’s a really good production, the composition is good as well. I’m a little bit surprised though, that Crystal Dynamics have decided to change the theme again… I find myself trying to understand Crystal Dynamics’ direction with what they’re doing with Tomb Raider, they’ve wanted to take it to somewhere new since 2013 and they’ve certainly done that. Their latest game is absolutely amazing, but it’s almost unrecognisable as Tomb Raider. So yep, it’s somewhere new. Is it Tomb Raider? Is it what people recognise as Tomb Raider? I don’t know. Some fans think it is a completely different product but with the same name. Whether that’s good or bad, again, it comes down to your personal choice… so I’m trying to understand it. Obviously Crystal Dynamics is trying to make money, everyone is trying to make money… from a musical perspective I am a little bit confused, because when you take something like James Bond for instance, I can’t imagine a James Bond film without [he hums a James Bond theme], it wouldn’t be a James Bond film if it didn’t have that, it has to be there, that theme is James Bond! So I am a little confused why Crystal changed the theme tune, and not only once, but twice. I’m not sure what’s going on with Tomb Raider at the moment.
I actually think it was more than twice? Because Legend had a different tune and Underworld as well, then 2013.
I’m not so sure. Legend and Underworld did use my theme tune. It is definitely in those scores. Maybe only for the theme tune but it was certainly there and it was until the Reboot in 2013 when they dropped it completely. Jason Graves was hired to write a completely new theme and then Crystal made Rise of the Tomb Raider with another composer and another new theme again. I don’t understand…
I know you’ve been to Derby recently, have you visited Lara Croft Way?
Yeah I was passing through Derby a few months ago, I went to Andy Sandham’s wedding actually and on my way back I popped into Derby and drove pass my old house.
What were your feelings, you know, being there?
[he laughs] I have lots of good memories about being in Derby. We had lots and lots of great parties. I remember hanging around with Andy Sandham, Stuart Atkinson and Martin Gibbins to name a few, it was just hilarious. It was just non-stop fun. We all had a fair bit of money because we were working on Tomb Raider so we were just going out constantly [he laughs] partying, enjoying life. So yeah, it was a good feeling visiting Derby again but I tell you what, I would never go and live there again, and it’s not just Derby I’m talking about, I’m talking about England. I’ve relocated now to the Czech Republic and every time I go back to England it’s raining, raining, raining and then it’s windy and it’s cold and I think “Sod this, I’m not coming back here again” …
I know this question has probably been asked before, but say Crystal Dynamics or some film production company asked you to work on the new game or film, what would you say to that?
I’d say yes, I’d love to!
Have you heard the soundtrack from Tomb Raider films?
Yes, I watched them both… I didn’t like the first one, because the soundtrack bared no relevance to Tomb Raider whatsoever. It was just like watching a film cut to a load of dance music and that couldn’t be further from what Lara Croft is all about. She was brought up in this aristocratic family, very high-class society… she didn’t listen to dance/pop music, she listened to classical music. This is why we picked classical music to describe the game. She was a classy woman; she wouldn’t have listened to dance music. Not that I’m saying that listening to dance music is in any way derogatory but it’s just not her… The second movie’s soundtrack was written by Alan Silvestri – one of my heroes, so I was overjoyed to read an interview with him where he stated that his score was heavily influenced by the music that I’d written for Tomb Raider games!… I enjoyed listening to his score. It was a very grand production, but that’s typical of Silvestri. His score for Back to the Future used that massive brass ensemble. He’s into big orchestral productions… That’s his style. If they asked me to do the third movie, of course I would be very honoured!
Have you heard Lara Croft Go! soundtrack then? It has some motifs in there.
Yeah I heard that and I’ve played it, and I really, really like it! Yeah my Tomb Raider theme is in there and they used some of my ambiences as well… I think it works brilliantly.
It won the best mobile game recently
Not surprised at all, it is a really good game. I was totally hooked when I played it. I couldn’t put it down.
You auditioned the actors for Tomb Raider I, what made you choose Shelley Blond as Lara?
She sounded right. The way it worked with the VO back then, and today, there are agencies that have hundreds of actors on their books. I gave the agency the character brief, and then they found five or six people for each character. They then sent me a CD with the actor’s show reels. After listening to the show reels I’d call the agency and tell them who I want to interview. I’d then call the actors directly, chat to them, hear how they speak and interact, then ask them to read a few lines from the script. I remember I had a loudspeaker on my phone in the studio at Core and I had a mic right next to the phone and I recorded my conversations with them. Later, after going through all the recordings I picked the one which sounded most natural and fluid, and the one that I thought would be the easiest to direct at the recording session. I made my choice, told the agency which one I wanted, booked them, and we met at the studio where we recorded the script.
Shelley said there was someone directing her at the studio, was that you?
Yes, it was.
Why did you decide to make her sound rather mono-syllabic and expressionless?
Yeah! I remember that! When Shelley performed her first few lines we (Vicky Arnold (script writer) and I) felt she was too emotional. Lara Croft is emotional person but she doesn’t display her emotions, she is really cool, calm and collective. Shelley was too expressive and playful with her lines on the first few takes. So after the first test recording I remember Vicky saying to me “No that’s not right, that’s too much, Lara is cooler than that”. So I suggested to Shelley that she make it a bit more monotone to give Lara that cool, intelligent delivery which, hopefully, is what we got in the end.
The New York Times said that Lara’s voice in the first game is as sexy as Jessica Rabbit’s
Shelley Blond was great. Her voice really worked. It was a shame Core didn’t continue to hire her.
You know about the alternative intro for Tomb Raider I, did you write the music for that as well?
Yes I did. The music to that was taken from a game that I’d written a couple of years before Tomb Raider called Heimdall 2, because I hadn’t written any music for Tomb Raider at this point. I think I had had a talk with Toby about the style of music but I wasn’t yet officially working on the project, I was still working on another project. So when this trailer came along, someone came running into my office and said “Nate we need music for this trailer, it needs to go out tomorrow!” This often happened at Core, so I thought “What do I have lying around that I could use?” I was doing primarily orchestral projects at that time and so I looked back through the projects I’d previously done at Core and found a track for Heimdall 2, which kind of made sense for that trailer. So I edited it to fit. As far as I remember we may have shown that trailer for our Core Design stand at E3 but I don’t think it was ever made available to public officially.
What advice would you give to someone who’s just starting as a composer for video games?
For someone who is already working in the industry, I would say to try and keep your writing as flexible as possible. Don’t narrow your style. Be prepared and be open to any style that’s requested. If you’re a composer already working for a company, for one thing, you are very lucky. To make sure you stay working for that company you need to be as versatile as possible. Don’t be precious about what you’re writing either. You also need to be a good communicator; you have to help people to describe what is it that they want.
For somebody trying to get into the industry, well, that’s quite difficult. I am reminded of the phrase “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know”. If you’ve got a friend that can recommend you that’s ten times better than sending in a show reel. And talking of show reels, don’t send a show reel with an hour of music on it, nobody has an hour, they have got about two minutes, if you’re lucky. Try to get to know somebody who could open the door for you. Try to get a meeting with people if you can, like down at the pub, meet the producer… show him your personality, your character and your passion for music and video games, get them to like you.
Do you think this applies to any creative industry?
I think so. I’m in a fortunate position now where I can practically choose who I work with. I do have a lot of work. So I tend to work with the people or projects that I like. Then I have more fun… it doesn’t matter how much money I’m being paid, I don’t want to work on a project with people who treat me like shit. I’d rather work with the other guy for half the money and be happy in my work.
What are your current projects and future plans?
I’ve got a lot of projects going on. Two of my regular clients are people I used to work with at Core Design. That’s great, because they’re like my pals – we understand each other really well. I’ve got lots of mobile games, that’s the thing at the minute. It’s nice work for me as they are quick turn-around projects – maybe 2 weeks’ work. I write 5-6 tunes in those weeks, a bunch of sound effects, maybe do some voices and job done. It’s exciting and varied and I work on lots of different things – I don’t get bored. Aside from that there are a number of film producers that I’ve been working with… I’m working on a film trailer at the minute and the Producer wants me to write the full score when they go into full production. There’s also a very special project which I will be talking about at PAX on Friday – that is set to complete this year.
Thank you so much for your time!