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
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
EVERY TIME I WOULD PRACTICE ON PIANO I HAD NO INTEREST IN LEARNING HOW TO PERFORM TRACKS
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.
ASSASSIN’S CREED WAS DEFINITELY THE MOST CHALLENGING GAME I WORKED ON
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.