COMPOSER JOE KATALDO ON THE ART OF AMPLIFYING VIDEO GAME EXPERIENCES THROUGH SOUND
The importance of sound in video games cannot be understated, as the audio landscape directly impacts the user's experience. When diving deep into the history of the medium, it's interesting to note how the sounds we associate with iconic arcade games like Space Invaders or Donkey Kong differ from those created a few decades later, such as Call of Duty: Modern Warfare or Skyrim. Creating a signature sound palette is an integral part of what it takes to build a legacy, with this exact motivation driving composer and sound designer Joe Kataldo forward.
"The shoes provide a whole range of frequencies that are “felt” instead of being heard, that headphones alone cannot provide."
Originally hailing from Italy, the Los Angeles-based composer has lent his breadth of talent to a variety of projects, with his expertise in producing hybrid scores and sci-fi sound effects. Joe's journey in music began on a much more classical side of the spectrum, coming from a family of trained musicians who didn't find contemporary music to hold the same allure. After laying a foundation rooted in classical music, Joe went on to learn from his own experiences in music, including how the world of live performance wasn't the best fit for him. After attending the Music Conservatory of Napoli in Italy, Joe's pursuit of finding his own lane as a musician brought him to the states, where he went on to attend the renowned Berklee College of Music in Boston and became captivated by the limitless possibilities that come from crafting musical landscapes designed for video games specifically.
With a strong background and newfound clarity about which direction his passions would take him next, Joe went on to form his own full-service audio production company, Mad Wave Audio, and begin taking on projects in the realm of video games, location-based entertainment and interactive media. Throughout the past decade, Joe has worked on a variety of exciting projects, amassing an impressive resume that further reinforces the importance of investing in one's interests and taking a chance on trying out different areas of focus especially within a creative field.
During a recent conversation with the DropLabs team, Joe shared more about making the transition from classical music to a contemporary focus, what the creative process is like for composing and sound designing for video games specifically, and what his mantra is for going tirelessly after his goals.
What inspired you to pursue music? How did you get started?
Coming from a family of musicians, I started music super early, probably when I was six. I started with piano and violin; it wasn't really a choice. Later on in life, I wanted a guitar and my family was against it [Laughs]. They're very strict classical musicians, so nothing to do with video game audio, which is what I do now. Anything that was not a classical instrument was considered a toy by them. So by the age of 14, I became more in charge of my own musical education. I was like, "Okay, that's it, I'm done. I'm gonna buy a cheap guitar and start playing it". That's when I started to study contemporary music.
Around the time I was 19, I had my first tour experience. The winner and some of the most notable participants of an Italian TV show similar to X-Factor went on a tour at the end of the season, and I was a part of the supporting band. Through this experience, I realized I didn't really like performing; the on-the-road kind of life wasn't for me.
After that experience, I started focusing more on music production and becoming a studio musician. I was still practicing guitar, and I started applying to a few colleges to further my education. I was already in music school; I went to the Conservatory of Naples for jazz performance and contemporary composition, but I wanted to keep going and I started looking at what America had to offer. I ended up being accepted to attend the Berklee College of Music of Boston, with a scholarship to pursue my second degree in music.
How did creating music for video games officially come into play?
One day as I was registering for classes, I discovered that Berklee had started to offer a minor in video game scoring. At that time I had no idea that you could make a living by writing music for video games. I was like, "Okay, let's try it." During the first lesson, the teacher actually showed some data on how the video game market is bigger than the music and movie industries combined. I was like, "Why has nobody told me about this?!" [Laughs].
I started concentrating solely on that. Going to Berklee really helped, especially since it was one of the first schools that had a program in music for video games specifically. I didn't really study sound design; sound design is something I got passionate about later on. When I was out of school and still in Boston, I did a little bit of commercial work and I was mostly teaching music, but I was already planning to move to LA, where I wanted to set-up my business operation, and dedicate myself to game audio.
What helped lead you to fully break into the gaming industry?
I had already started working on The Last Night, which is an indie video game that kind of exploded in 2017. It was announced at Microsoft's Xbox press event during E3, which made the online communities go nuts for it. So through that, I started seriously working in video games. Little by little, I kept networking, meeting more people, going to conferences, and working every waking hour of the day, and night too [Laughs]. Soon I ended up with a roster of clients that consistently came back to me with more work, and bigger projects.
What encouraged you to start your own company and become an entrepreneur? What are some projects that you've worked on that you're really proud of?
At a certain point having a team that supported my work seemed to be the right move to unlock bigger projects. As creative people, we all have a bucket list of video games we would like to score, collaboration that we dream of, and maybe some top artists that we would like to work with. Starting a company seemed to be the best way to achieve those goals faster. Also I wanted to be involved as early as possible on a project to have more time to create, and to oversee all the aspects of game audio, and not just music. Becoming a one-stop shop for developers allowed me to do that.
I am usually the most proud of my latest work. This is a field where you are constantly in learning mode, always trying to improve your craft. It’s really difficult for me to listen to my previous work, and not be overly critical. We recently worked on ARCHER: Danger Phone, the mobile game for the animated TV show, Archer. We also just finished working on Terminator Salvation the VR Ride, which is a location-based experience that is at the Two Bit Circus in downtown LA.
I also have an ongoing collaboration with RUST, LTD. the indy studio behind Hot Dogs, Horseshoes & Hand Grenades (H3VR), which has been one of the platinum selling VR games on Steam for the past three years. It's the most advanced weapon simulation game that you can play today, but the context of the game is not violent; you don't shoot anything that even barely resembles a human and your main enemies are hot dogs. The game is constantly updated with seasonal modes, such as one for Christmas or Halloween, or those inspired by movies or other games. For example RUST, LTD. recently did a parody of Team Fortress 2. Valve gave the studio permission to bring their iconic multiplayer game into the H3VR world as one of the VR modes, and I was fortunate to work on that, and compose the main theme.
When you were making the transition from your classical music background into video games, were there any particular games that you would study to learn more about what the audio process was like? What was your introduction to viewing video games as being a creative outlet for music?
Quake 3 was a game that inspired me to pursue a career in music composition. The sound track is a mix of industrial sound design, metal guitars and synthesisers, pretty much everything I loved at that time. Also there were two games that as a kid I spent endless summers modifying and indirectly studying. One was a very violent car game called Carmageddon 2, where you'd smash the opponent's car or kill pedestrians to win the race, and the other was a little turn based war simulation game featuring worms as soldiers, called Worms. With some of my friends we enjoyed swapping the violent sounds from Carmageddon 2 with the cute sounds of Worms and vice versa. It was through this fun exercise that I realized how powerful audio is in any visual medium; how it can make or break an experience, and turn scary into comical, and etc.
So, in the work that you do now, can you talk to me a little bit about what your creative process is like when you're working on a game?
Just like a painter prepares his colors before starting to paint, I like to spend quite some time in pre-production mode, creating unique sounds, designing synth patches, selecting combinations of instruments, or experimenting with particular audio processing chains of effects. This is probably the most fun part of any project, ideas flow without being too critical, and happy accidents are allowed to happen.
At this point I start sharing a few of the sounds created with the game director, or anyone else involved in the audio direction for the project. With the advance of sampling technologies, I now have available at my fingertips any instrument I can imagine of. The true challenge is to decide what instruments or sounds I will not be using. The goal is to select sonic signatures for the project, or assign specific sounds or combinations of sounds to particular characters or events in the story.
All the material that is usually created from a variety of sources like hardware synths, weird objects, unique instruments or guitar pedals, is then sampled and organized into a Cubase Pro template, specifically created for the project, that will be used to compose the music.
Also while in pre-production, I start reading design documents, characters' back stories, looking at artwork, and etc. to fully immerse myself in the game, while sketching the main musical themes.
Up to this point the process is very similar to scoring a movie, but because video games are a nonlinear medium, the next step is where the two paths take different routes. In video game music, before composing a track, it’s important to first plan how the soundtrack will be assembled in real time by the game engine from a variety of modular pieces like layers, looping sections, transitions, stingers, intro, and endings. The reason for this unique approach is that video game music is generally interactive, and it needs to respond to player’s choices, or any other dynamic events that can happen in a game, like low player’s health, fighting a boss, or being attacked by a large number of enemies.
Once all the preliminary steps are taken care of, I proceed to write music. The tracks are first realized with samples, so that they can be approved by the game director, and tested in game, and later on finalized with the addition of live instruments, and mixed and mastered.
It sounds like being organized is like a very key part to accomplishing a successful video game score. Would you say that the environment in which your best work is created is very organized?
There is no other option [Laughs]. My mind can be chaotic when I'm creating, but everything else needs to be extremely organized to keep track of all the different stages of production, such as if a sound or a piece of music has been approved, implemented into the game, or if any assets need revisions. Everything is extremely organized to make sure that deadlines are met, but also so that no time is wasted on tasks that are not creative.
How would you explain the DropLabs experience to someone who hasn't tried the technology before?
I would say it's like walking barefoot in a virtual world. The shoes provide a whole range of frequencies that are “felt” instead of being heard, that headphones alone cannot provide. They make playing video games, watching a movie, or listening to music a whole new experience. With the shoes on, you’ll be able to feel things like the material of the floor you are walking on, the footsteps of an enemy that is walking up to you, or they’ll make a car explosion seriously shake your body.
These shoes might very well become the missing link between other technologies that provide tactile audio experiences like haptic suites and backpacks, or any other device that is usually used to immerse the player in a VR experience.
What is an important mantra that you live by?
If not in this lifetime, in which one? It has been, and it still is my mantra, and I also like to share it with people that are still on the fence about pursuing a very competitive career path like music can be. It is my way to say be fearless, embrace and cultivate your talent, and don’t be scared to make what you love the most, your profession.
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