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Level up: For new video game music, Salt Lake City is becoming a hotspot

When it comes to orchestral scores, the video game industry often faces certain issues. The solution? Salt Lake's orchestral music scene.

SALT LAKE CITY — Imagine members of The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square. Now imagine them in a recording studio, singing in the Black Speech of Mordor, that ominous tongue from “The Lord of the Rings.”

That really happened though.

It was for the popular ongoing video game series “The Lord of the Rings Online,” the musical scoring for which is recorded in Utah. Chance Thomas, a composer based in Bountiful, has composed the series’ music for years now.

It’s an example of how Utah has become an increasingly popular place for the video game industry to record its musical scores. As it turns out, Utah’s orchestral community has become the solution to numerous issues the video game industry typically faces with its orchestral scores.

The reasons why say a lot about Utah’s history with both orchestral music and recorded music. In this arena, Utah is leveling up.

Sound engineer Michael Greene during a video game score recording session at Funk Studios in North Salt Lake.
Sound engineer Michael Greene during a video game score recording session at Funk Studios in North Salt Lake.
Chase Taylor

Michael Greene, a longtime sound engineer in Salt Lake City, has worked on a lot of these scores, including “World of Warcraft” and “Dota 2.” According to Greene, the city has been attracting more of these gigs in the last five to 10 years. He estimates that per year, three to five major video game scores — full-length offerings with 30-50 minutes of music — are now recorded in Salt Lake City, with another 10 “ancillary scores” (extra music for existing games) being recorded here yearly.

“And I would expect that to continue for at least the next five years, as far as I can tell,” he added.

Part of that trajectory, Greene explained, is the video game industry’s embrace of mobile and online gaming. According to Greene, these developments have made the market for video game scoring bigger than it’s ever been.

Utah has a number of notable video game composers and a history of video game scoring that dates back to at least the early ’90s. As the video game market grew and video game consoles became more sophisticated, so did the music that accompanied it. One of the first video games to ever have a live orchestral score, “Quest for Glory V: Dragon Fire,” had its score composed by Thomas and was recorded in Utah before the game’s release in 1998. Thomas has continued to do much of his recording in Salt Lake City. His locally produced titles include “Warhammer: Chaosbane” and “Might and Magic,” and he facilitated the scoring of “Guild Wars 2” in Utah as well.

As Thomas began landing more gigs “it just sort of started to snowball,” he explained. He liked utilizing Utah’s orchestral musicians, “and at a certain point, the results become your best sales. You have to grab people’s attention initially, but after that, it’s the results that speak for themselves. And I think that’s why people are coming to Salt Lake City more and more to record, because the results are epic.”

While Utah has a long history of orchestral music — the Utah Symphony was founded in 1940, and the state’s major universities have storied symphonic traditions — in-studio orchestral work isn’t the same as what folks see at the symphony.

“It’s a very different skill,” said John Shin, a Utah violinist who has worked on numerous video game scores. “You have to use a different part of your focus. Because sometimes you have to work for six to seven hours during an entire day, with just a 10-minute break each hour. Playing a musical instrument, and being able to play with other people for that long, takes a lot of patience and discipline.”

When these musicians show up in the studio, a brand new piece of sheet music is placed in front of them — a piece they’ve never seen before. After going through the piece once, it’s time to record.

“We have to all get on the same page, as to what the vision is, in a very short amount of time,” said Julie Beistline, another Utah violinist who regularly works on video game scores. “And if there’s one person that’s not with it, you have to retake it. That’s the pressure.”

Julie Beistline, a Salt Lake City-based violinist who has recorded on numerous video game scores locally.
Julie Beistline, a Salt Lake City-based violinist who has recorded on numerous video game scores locally.
Provided by Julie Beistline

Beistline was living in Denver and found herself returning to Utah often for studio work, so she moved here permanently. She estimates about half of her current workload is video game scoring. (Same goes for Shin.)

According to Shin, Beistline and Thomas, there’s a lot of overlap between the Utah Symphony and the locals who play on these video game scores. In their estimation, practically all of these in-studio musicians do frequent live work, either with the Utah Symphony or elsewhere. Session work, like the kind done for these games, has helped Utah’s many orchestral musicians remain in-state and still make a living with music, Greene noted.

“The music of video games has come a really, really long way, compared to just even five years ago,” Shin added. “And this music isn’t just simple loops anymore. They’re ginormous, epic pieces of symphonic music. This is definitely a new genre of music.”

“When you’re doing a soundtrack for a film or for a video game, most of the time you’re looking for a really aggressive, powerful, big sound,” Thomas explained. “And that’s what these guys have figured out how to do. And that’s why people keep coming back. Plus, you know, it’s the lowest cost live orchestral solution in America.”

About the cost: Utah’s orchestral musicians aren’t unionized when it comes to video game scoring, like they are in Los Angeles. The video game industry’s biggest titles still utilize musicians from Los Angeles and London — those places have far more musicians, and these upper echelon video games are so profitable that cost is no issue — but for mid-tier games with smaller budgets, Salt Lake City is becoming a go-to destination.

Sam Cardon, an Orem-based composer who’s worked on scores for “Overwatch” and “World of Warcraft,” began video game scoring in the early 1990s, when he helped make music for the Sony PlayStation games “Jet Moto” and “Twisted Metal.” (Those scores weren’t orchestral, but they were made in Utah.) These days, Cardon does most of his recording outside Utah but still has his orchestral scores mixed locally.

“I don’t see any qualitative difference between the best stuff that’s recorded here and the best stuff recorded elsewhere,” Cardon said. “The musicians are seasoned, the composers are seasoned. It’s a really great music scene. And the engineering is fantastic, the studios are good. It’s a fantastic scene.”

Bigger cities have more studios than Salt Lake does, but some of Salt Lake’s best recording spaces — specifically, Funk Studios, LA East and the now-defunct Huge Studios — are ideal for the logistics of video game scoring. These Utah studios are large enough to house a full orchestra/choir and still get a spacious sound, but not so big that they’re beholden to it. Recording engineers can manipulate a lot of acoustics in post-production, but if the recording space is church/cathedral-sized, it’s hard to make it sound smaller. Salt Lake’s recording studios are adaptable.

Seattle has been one of Utah’s competitors for video game scoring, but Utah has started to close the gap as Studio X, a legendary Seattle studio that did lots of video game scoring, relocated to another part of the city, in a space not as conducive to video game scoring.

“The thing about our studios here in Salt Lake City is they’re not too small or too big,” Thomas said. “They’re tight enough that you get a good sound, you get a good breath of fresh air on the instrument, and then you can dial in whatever kinds of digital processes you want to give you a big cathedral sound, or a small church sound, or a medium-sized studio sound.”

While a lot of these developments are new, perhaps it’s all to be expected, given Utah’s history with commercial scoring generally. Greene said Utah’s scoring industry began taking off in the late 1980s, as the Sundance Institute launched its Film Music Program. Greene also noted the Utah company Non-Stop Music Productions, which began doing frequent scoring work for national TV networks and ad agencies during this time.

“Because we had done so much film score work, obviously it became a good place to do video game scores,” Greene said.

Video game scoring has become so popular here, in fact, that Greene said it has surpassed local film and TV scoring budgets, which have decreased.

For years, Chance Thomas said it felt like he and other local composers were pushing Utah’s video game scoring market uphill. And now, after years of pushing, there’s finally some real momentum.

“I think that Salt Lake City is the turtle,” Thomas said. “We’ve been slowly but surely growing. Slow and steady.”

Correction: A previous version incorrectly stated that “Quest for Glory V: Dragon Fire” was the first video game to ever feature a live orchestral score. It was among the first. Additionally, a previous version also stated the scores for “World of Warcraft” and “Guild Wars 2” were produced by Chance Thomas. He facilitated some recording for “Guild Wars 2” and “Warcraft III” in Utah, but was not the producer.