To put it lightly, Wolfenstein: Youngblood has been a rather divisive game -- one fraught with problems, but not one completely devoid of good things either. One of those good things, if not the best thing, happens to be Tom Salta’s fantastic synth score. We got to have a chat with him about what influences the soundtrack, how it felt to hop into Wolfenstein and create something new, and how culturally ignorant American entertainment can be sometimes.
Push Square: What inspirations did you have when it came to crafting the music for Wolfenstein: Youngblood? I’d have to assume some synth scores from the era. If so, which ones? And did you have any inspiration from unlikely sources? And in what ways did you want the 80s to shine through?
Tom Salta: The most unexpected reference I was given was The Cocteau Twins. A more obvious influence was John Carpenter, who few would argue is synonymous with early 80s synth movie scores. I also wanted to dip into a little Vangelis (Blade Runner). I knew those kind of dreamy, reverberant synth-scapes would work well if I made them dark and dirty enough for a Wolfenstein game.
The creative direction was definitely a group effort as well. Nick Raynor, the audio director, had a very specific approach in mind; early 80s post-punk, guitar-heavy music inspired by The Cocteau Twins’ Garlands album, with a little of that John Carpenter sprinkled in. It had to sound dark and post-apocalyptic. Since I am a synth guy (who coincidentally started creating music in the mid-eighties) I really wanted to create a unique fusion of early eighties influences. So it was really a blast. Every instrument and effect I used in creating the music was produced from authentic early 80s synths, emulations, and effects.
Many aspects of the series are different this time out, from the time period, to the music, and even the main characters. In what ways do you think your process of scoring this differed compared to if BJ remained the protagonist? Or did it?
This is my first time scoring for the Wolfenstein franchise so I can’t compare this score with any past work that I’ve done, but I can say that everything about this game’s personality, including the two new protagonists, was represented in the music. Perhaps the punk/rebellious nature of the music was something a bit new. But of course, it was done in a 1980s musical vocabulary.
Did playing as the daughters of BJ have an impact on the way you approached the music? Did you want to make sure the game sounded different enough to support the shift of focus away from BJ? Or in the other direction, did you want lean into more reprises but with new textures to show the familial connection?
I can tell you that there were no musical reprises in this score, everything is new. The personality and identity of Wolfenstein remained intact, but it was through a completely different musical lens. That’s one of the things that I feel makes this score standout.
Was there a piece you started building the sound for the game around? Was it the main theme? Something else entirely? Something from one of the previous games even.
This is an original score so there was really no existing theme or motif in Wolfenstein that I was asked or able to build upon. I admit this is unusual, especially for such an established franchise that goes back 30 years. It just seems that right now, they have an approach that works and I’m glad I was able to hit the ground running in their time-tested approach.
Oftentimes, game soundtracks can shine even brighter when listened to in isolation. Are there any little tidbits in the music that would be easy to miss in the heat of the moment that you’re especially proud of? Something in the background, etc.
Wow, good question. You must be a musician yourself to think of a question like that!
Yes indeed. Perhaps it comes from my background in music production, where the focus is on the music rather than it just playing a supporting role. I always find myself putting much more time than required into crafting all the little details in the music, and this is certainly one reason that I am a huge advocate of soundtrack releases. In the case of Youngblood, if you listen very closely, you’ll be able to appreciate all the sounds, instruments and effects used. Everything you hear was available in the 1980s and augmented with modern sounds. This made it more challenging to create of course, but also hopefully more rewarding to listen to and appreciate.
In what ways did you try and marry the sound of your music with the location. Generally when media portrays France, synths aren’t necessarily going to be everyone’s first thought. Films, etc. have conditioned more of an expectation of something like accordion in fact. Is this something you wanted to account for going in? Did you want to play against type? If not, in what ways did the locale factor into the music you made?
Tom Salta: Not to sound critical of my beloved countrymen, but I think this stereotype comes from the limited way that most Americans view other cultures in general. I can tell you that the 80s synth movement was going strong in all of Europe before it came over to the US. People I know who grew up in France were listening to all the same 80s New Wave, Dark Wave, Punk, Alternative that I was; actually more.
That being said, the Youngblood score wasn’t location-specific, but rather time-specific. It also was "franchise-specific" in the sense that all the music had to portray the dark, post-apocalyptic, aggressive and gritty sound that Wolfenstein is known for.
And finally, for my closing question on all first interviews, I like to dig a bit further into the past! How’d you find yourself scoring games? Is it something you always wanted to do? Did it happen more organically?
Going back to 1980, I always loved music and video games. In 1990 I began my music career in the record business, but it wasn’t until 2001 (around the time the original Halo came out) that I had the epiphany that I could actually combine my love of games and love of music into a single career. So, yes, my journey was quite organic and very unexpected!
For a much more comprehensive audio-visual answer to that question, check out my TEDx Talk on my musical journey into games.
And that's going to do it for us. We'd like to thank Tom for his time answering these questions. If you're curious about the music, but haven't had a chance to check out the game, then you can head over to Tom's Soundcloud here, and give some of the music a listen.