Recently, we got the chance to have a chat with the composer of Crash Bandicoot 4: It's About Time, Walter Mair. During the process, we talked about the return of everyone's favourite bandicoot, how to capture the sonic intersection of synthesized and artificial music, as well as the trials and tribulations that come with scoring for such a beloved, long-enduring series. Let's dash in!
Push Square: Crash is a series almost entirely remembered via its legacy from the 90s even though the series persisted beyond that. What kind of challenge did that pose musically when it came to crafting a soundtrack for such an established property?
Walter Mair: Working on a massive franchise like Crash Bandicoot is a big task. First, there is the heritage Crash 4 brings. Then there is the question of how to define the new title and how to deal with the melodies and motifs which fans have grown fond of over time. I was really lucky to be working with such a great developer – Toys for Bob always encouraged me to go bigger and bolder and push the envelope. This has resulted in a super exciting soundtrack that features lots of live recorded instruments combined with synths and electronic instruments. I created new themes as well as revisiting some of the all-star motifs from past titles.
You’ve worked in-game music extensively prior to this, but the tone of most of your previous projects tends to be, let’s say, different. Grittier, more violent, etc. How did scoring something much more upbeat and chipper like Crash differ from your previous efforts?
This is a really good question. I always try to distil the brief and establish what is right for each new project – what motifs can I introduce, how melodic can I be, will the score benefit from a specific instrumentation, etc.
For Crash 4 I was allowed to be as melodic as possible whilst keeping the instrumentation varied between the different levels. Also, the tempo and pacing for Crash was a lot faster and much more energetic compared to a game that is set in a less colourful world. The techniques and methods I employ across different projects are actually quite similar even though the outcome can sound completely different. For Crash 4, I recorded lots of real instruments and then ran them through vintage and analogue effects. For example, after treating a live recorded saxophone with my modular synth rig the instrument changed its character quite radically and almost sounded like a synthesizer, whilst still maintaining the “breathy” character of the original recording. I believe there aren’t any boundaries moving between genres as long as the resulting sound is in keeping with the project or, as in this case, the sound of an established franchise. I really enjoy the enhanced variety in my projects and the opportunity to move across different genres and styles.
How much (or how little) did you look to previous scores in the series when it came time to craft the music? Did you want a score littered with reprises of iconic stings, or something that could better stand entirely on its own? Or did you seek out more of a middle ground?
A lot of consideration and effort went into creating a balance of paying homage to the classic scores while introducing new sounds and original themes for Crash 4. We wanted to stay true to this amazing franchise but also announce the beginning of something new. How can we develop the music and still uphold the charming sound of the game? By recording mostly small sections and often individual instruments and rather unique instruments such as the Bone Flute, the soundtrack brings the sound to a whole new level. I kept the music fresh in sound, added a lot of crafty synth sounds, and then brought back some of the original themes.
How do you keep the music in a game like this interesting? A game built largely around challenging repetition of certain segments, or a rinse and repeat approach to dying constantly must pose quite a challenge to keep the music fresh. If you find yourself in one area for a particularly long time, it’d be easy for looping music to get annoying. In what ways did you seek to avoid that stagnation? Mixing and matching of stems, randomization?
We used an advanced system that the audio team at Toys for Bob had developed which enabled us to seamlessly transition to different sections of the music for parts of each level. I added a lot of variation to each of the tracks: each track contains energetically different parts that can be triggered on rail slides or other fast-paced events within a level. The boss battles required a lot of planning as did the Mardi Gras level: in some of these missions gameplay events and environment animations are triggered by the tempo and beats of each music track. So the music dictates the on-screen action in the relevant levels which required some clever scripting from the level designers and animators.
What influences or inspirations did you have when composing the music that might not be obvious at first blush? Movies, games, books, other composers, etc.
As a big fan of the franchise, I tried to avoid any clichés and at first, we stayed away from anything that was too “expected.” This led to really interesting sounding “happy accidents,” where the purchase of an antique instrument resulted in some unique sounds that took the team by surprise. In general, most of my research was spent in the relevant musical genre that was associated with a certain type of level. For instance, what do people think “Prehistoric” sounds like, or what is it that our ear identifies as a “Jungle” or “Pirate” sound. Lots of experimenting and fine-tuning was key to defining the sound-world of Crash 4.
Were there any instruments or sounds that you may have initially written off as being ill-fitting, that you ultimately returned to later on in the project?
Oh definitely, I recall there was this one sound I recorded that wasn’t quite the right fit initially but became a key element in a later version of a level. It was created with synthesizers from the ‘70s and ‘80s, which have a very specific sound. My first layout for a mission set in one of the Sn@xx Dimension levels made use of ‘80s inspired synths but I felt this wasn’t quite right. So I muted these elements and started building the track with more acoustic instruments. Once I had the core sound captured using guitars, electric bass, drums, strings, etc. I would then bring in a few of the previously recorded electronic instruments. The sound of the track started to shift and sometimes even changed quite drastically. Subsequently, I found myself taking out more and more of the recorded instruments and replacing them with synths to capture this quirky, outlandish sound that is so typical for Crash. These back and forths were crucial for developing a more unique sound-world for Crash 4.
Crash is a series with a pretty cheeky sense of humour, as well as a series that just absolutely revels in and relishes the whimsical charm it gives off. In what ways did you try and use the music to accomplish this as well? Tonally & emotionally, what were you targeting with the music for Crash 4?
The music had to capture a wide selection of emotions that are mainly settled in one or the other category of “humour.” We laugh with Crash, enjoy playing clumsy Dingodile, fear Cortex and become his biggest ally soon after, and much more. And all of that is thread with this cheeky undertone that is omnipresent in the game; the instruments had to mirror this feeling, they can’t take themselves too seriously. So I combined 80s synthesizers with an antique bone flute, a half-broken clarinet with massive blocks of stones that were smashed with a sledgehammer. For the latter, I went to a quarry, armed with field recorders. It is these contrasting sound-worlds that keep the soundtrack energetic and varied. And hopefully brings a smile to the audience.
As my closing question for first time interviews, I always love to ask how you found yourself scoring games? What brought you over to the industry? Pure luck, something completely coincidental? Or was it a driving force you specifically sought out?
I started my career writing music for movies. When I was first approached by a music supervisor colleague who worked in games, I was asked to license music for a video game. What followed was the opportunity to write music for radio stations featured in the Grand Theft Auto series. This was the moment when, as an avid player of video games, I first became involved with the creative process of writing a soundtrack. I loved the process and the freedom given by clients and thus reached out to other developers. SEGA came back to me after I had sent them a DVD (yes, this was quite a few years ago) and offered myself to score Viking: Battle for Asgard. I got to record an 80-piece orchestra with epic percussion and a 40-piece choir. From then on, I knew that games were a truly amazing and very expressive medium to write for and subsequently I have worked on numerous interactive titles and enjoy a balance of games and films.
We'd like to thank Walter one last time for taking the time to do the interview, and if you have an interest in checking out more of the music, Walter has individual tracks from the game on his Youtube channel.