Retro In­ter­view: Jesper Kyd

We catch up with the le­gendary game com­poser to find out how he started out in the demo scene and made his name on some of the big­gest fran­chises in gam­ing to­day

Games TM - - CONTENTS -

From Hit­man to State Of De­cay 2, the mu­sic of Jesper Kyd has been the sound­track to some of gam­ing’s big­gest re­leases. We catch up with the com­poser

COULD YOU TALK a lit­tle about how your love of mu­sic co­a­lesced around play­ing in­stru­ments and ex­per­i­ment­ing with home com­put­ers? My brother and I got our first com­puter when I was about 13 and prior to that I had been play­ing away on pi­anos. Dif­fer­ent places that I would go with my fam­ily, there was al­ways a pi­ano. My un­cles and aunts all have pi­anos and I have quite a big fam­ily, so I’ve al­ways been play­ing, in a way. When I got the Com­modore 64 I was able to put struc­ture into the mu­sic and ac­tu­ally cre­ate songs. That was a su­perex­cit­ing mo­ment for me. At the same time I was also very in­spired by all of the mu­sic that was cre­ated on the Com­modore 64 with that ana­logue SID chip in there. I thought it was just the most amaz­ing thing, and I es­pe­cially liked how cre­ative the com­posers were on that plat­form.

So, that’s how my whole in­ter­est got started and that’s how I got in­tro­duced to videogames as well and started play­ing them. It hap­pened si­mul­ta­ne­ously and there was def­i­nitely some kind of process of things evolv­ing at the same time, try­ing to fig­ure out how games were made. My friends were graphic artists and pro­gram­mers, so we started a game com­pany a few years later. As we were try­ing to fig­ure out how to make games, I was try­ing to fig­ure out how to make mu­sic. Games and mu­sic hap­pened at the same time for me.

Is that part of why so much of your mu­sic merges live in­stru­ments with elec­tronic mu­sic?

Yes, I was very much into the elec­tron­ic­mu­sic world un­til Hit­man 2. That was re­ally a turn­ing point for me. Up un­til that point I would say that most of my mu­sic had been elec­tronic. I did prac­tice on real in­stru­ments and played the gui­tar and pi­ano for years, but the first mu­sic I com­posed I was very much into the elec­tronic sounds and I just loved how elec­tronic the Com­modore 64 mu­sic was. I don’t think that you can get any more elec­tronic than that kind of sound. That’s what I came out of and I don’t want to say it was a foun­da­tion per se, but it was def­i­nitely one of the build­ing blocks.

Did you have any for­mal train­ing in mu­sic? Not re­ally, no. I took clas­si­cal com­po­si­tion and I prac­ticed that on pi­ano. I had a re­ally good teacher. I also prac­ticed clas­si­cal gui­tar for about five years and fig­ured out that that wasn’t re­ally me. Ev­ery time I would prac­tice on pi­ano I had no in­ter­est in learn­ing how to per­form tracks, even though my pi­ano teacher


was al­ways on about ‘We have to work on your form’. It was al­ways more the com­po­si­tion part that in­ter­ested me. how are tracks put to­gether? When you put two dif­fer­ent chords to­gether how do you get a dif­fer­ent emo­tion? That re­ally in­ter­ested me.

when did you be­gin to re­alise there was a ca­reer path ahead of you from all of this?

It was very or­ganic. As I men­tioned when

I was 13 I got a Com­modore 64 and a few months later I started fid­dling with a mu­sic pro­gram my Dad had bought, just try­ing to see what it was about. Then I was in­tro­duced to the demo scene. That’s when I was in­tro­duced to all of these demos and un­der­ground pro­grams that only ex­isted in the scene; they were not re­tail, you couldn’t buy them in a store. I started work­ing on some of those mu­sic pro­grams, which I thought were a lot bet­ter sound­ing. They could re­ally cre­ate some fan­tas­tic sounds. So, that’s how that whole thing got kicked off.

The sec­ond half to that is that once I got in­tro­duced to the demo scene I wanted to start cre­at­ing demos too with my child­hood friend Michael (he was the graph­ics guy, I was the mu­sic guy), and we also made mu­sic to­gether, ac­tu­ally. We wanted to do these pre­sen­ta­tions and demos as well and as that thing grew and we got bet­ter I was in dif­fer­ent demo groups and got in­tro­duced to more and more peo­ple. At some point we felt we had some re­ally great tal­ent in that group and that’s when we started our first games com­pany, which was Zyrinx, which later evolved into Io in­ter­ac­tive. what was your first re­leased prod­uct and how in­volved were you in the process of mak­ing it?

My first re­leased prod­uct was with a com­pany called Magic Bytes and it was called USS

John Young. It was an Amiga game and it came out in, I think, 1990. I just did the main ti­tle mu­sic for that. My first real sound­track where I had a full 20 to 30 tracks and I felt like I got to go from A to C was Sub-ter­ra­nia for the Sega Mega Drive. We had made our own mu­sic pro­gram for that that could do pure FM sound. We were able to de­liver that at 44hz, 16-bit qual­ity when a lot of games in that for­mat had some re­ally crappy 8-bit sam­ples. So that was fun to be able to cre­ate my own in­stru­ments and that was a nice trans­fer from the demo scene and then into that be­cause it was the same spirit that we kept go­ing.

what do you con­sider to be the first game you were re­ally able to put your stamp on? That’s an in­ter­est­ing ques­tion. I think it would be MDK 2 and Hit­man. They came out around the same time. Prior to that I had done two games called Amok and Scorcher and I cer­tainly had a lot of fun with those as well. That was what in those days I called Cd-based mu­sic, mean­ing it wasn’t chip mu­sic. It was mu­sic made with real in­stru­ments. But I felt that Hit­man and MDK 2 had more of a cine­matic sense than those two ear­lier games.

those games were at the be­gin­ning of the cur­rent era of games with more at­ten­tion and higher bud­gets for graph­ics and sound.

Yeah, I to­tally agree and I think the Sega CD had a lot to do with that. Sud­denly you would have a Sega Mega Drive game and it would have a CD in there just stream­ing the mu­sic off the CD. Sud­denly there were gui­tars and real syn­the­sis­ers and the qual­ity of the mu­sic went from one place to a whole other place.

how did you ac­tu­ally get con­nected with Hit­man? The founders of Io. I was in their game com­pany prior to them found­ing the com­pany, so we had worked on Subter­ra­nia, Amok, Scorcher, Red Zone. I had done a bunch and even be­fore all of those games we were work­ing on demos and a few games that never made it to re­lease. So, I felt we had been work­ing to­gether for quite a while and they knew me well. We grew up to­gether and they know what I’m about. There’s a cer­tain amount of trust there. They know I’m al­ways there to push my­self to do the ab­so­lute best that I can and try to come up with some­thing re­ally unique. That was what they were look­ing for.

were you able to be in­volved in the game’s de­vel­op­ment from an early stage?

Yeah, I was quite in­volved, but I would say I got more in­volved with the sec­ond, third and fourth hit­man. That’s some­thing that over the years we get… I was go­ing to say we got bet­ter at work­ing to­gether, but that’s not quite ac­cu­rate. We got more and more ex­pe­ri­ence work­ing to­gether. That’s how to put it. And in get­ting more ex­pe­ri­ence work­ing to­gether you get a sense of how the whole thing works and you’re able to trust each other more and work faster and that kind of thing.

Do you find the time to ex­per­i­ment a lit­tle be­tween projects?

Yes, a lot ac­tu­ally. I usu­ally ex­per­i­ment dur­ing the project as well. And that’s re­ally some­thing that I add to a project. When I’m work­ing on a project, of course if it’s su­per-tight dead­linewise and you have four weeks, then you have to kind of sit down and say ‘We can’t take a week off right now and ex­per­i­ment’. I of­ten get in­volved early and that means there’s time to ex­per­i­ment. I can give an ex­am­ple; I was work­ing on a project and I was do­ing a re­vi­sion on a track and it was start­ing to feel like I’d done a lot of re­vi­sions be­cause we’re try­ing to get it per­fect and things are chang­ing so

I’m chang­ing with it and one night I was like, ‘okay, I’m just go­ing to stop and do some­thing com­pletely dif­fer­ent, be­cause I need this’. I did a 17-minute theme and I sent it to them and said ‘this doesn’t fit at all, but I just needed to do this be­cause I needed to get it out’. And they were so happy be­cause they loved that track and it didn’t fit what we were try­ing to do at that point, but we found an­other place to put it.

As­sas­sin’s Creed II stands out as an in­ter­est­ing chal­lenge with its mix of re­nais­sance and near-fu­ture set­tings. what was that like to work on?

Fol­low­ing As­sas­sin’s Creed 1, I thought that was a fan­tas­tic game, so from the mo­ment I got in­volved I was su­per ex­cited. This was just some­thing I hadn’t seen be­fore and as a gamer I thought it was to­tally amaz­ing. But when As­sas­sin’s Creed II started the thing about that was I was re­ally sur­prised how much fo­cus there was on things that usu­ally aren’t fo­cused on in the games in­dus­try. Things such as ro­man­tic light­ing and ro­man­tic moods. The early tests of the game I thought were all very moody and ro­man­tic and I just knew right away that this would need to have a re­ally at­mo­spheric score. That re­ally blew my mind. And yeah, it was a chal­leng­ing project be­cause there were so many dif­fer­ent types of sto­ries and styles, but that’s some­thing that we had al­ready touched upon in As­sas­sin’s Creed 1. As­sas­sin’s Creed was def­i­nitely the most chal­leng­ing game I worked on. We had to fig­ure out what was the sound of the An­i­mus and the Brother­hood and how the An­i­mus fil­ters and warps the mu­sic a bit. It was more about the mu­sic and the mood this time around. We had a lot of the func­tion­al­ity is what I mean to say. We had fig­ured out a lot of that stuff al­ready. In that as­pect it was a re­ally en­joy­able score and I could feel that the team, they knew they were part of some­thing that was very ex­cit­ing. It was su­per fun to be in­volved with.

Do you feel that you have a pref­er­ence be­tween work­ing with a full orches­tra or work­ing dig­i­tally?

I al­ways let the project dic­tate where I’m go­ing. If you’re work­ing on a game like Ver­mintide

II, you’re not go­ing for an or­ches­tral sound. You’re go­ing for more of a mid­dle-ages, crazy in­dus­trial sound that could po­ten­tially be played by the Skaven rats them­selves in some band they might have. Try­ing to add some kind of re­al­ism to the Warham­mer uni­verse, that’s the per­spec­tive. I don’t miss not work­ing with an orches­tra on a score like that. We work with a lot of solo per­form­ers on that, so the whole score is ba­si­cally live, but you won’t find a cello… well you will per­haps find a bro­ken cello, but you won’t find a string sec­tion in there.

But if you’re ask­ing me to write an or­ches­tral sound­track, then I very much love work­ing with a live orches­tra. It needs to be a live orches­tra.


Kyd’s work on Hit­man was ac­tu­ally born of a long work­ing re­la­tion­ship with mem­bers of IO In­ter­ac­tive who had also been at Zyrinx to­gether with Kyd and re­mained in Den­mark when he moved to new York. It was a part­ner­ship that would pro­duce four Hit­man ti­tles be­tween 2000 and 2006.

Like many game devel­op­ers out of the eight­ies, Jesper Kyd ac­tu­ally found his feet in the home-com­puter demo scene, ex­per­i­ment­ing with mu­sic for Com­modore 64 be­fore mak­ing his first piece of mu­sic for the open­ing ti­tles of USS John Young in 1990.

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