Interview with SomaTone Interactive Audio

You might not have heard of SomaTone’s Kane Minkus or Nick Thomas, but chances are you’ve listened to their work. From Mystery Case Files to Diner Dash, the California-based duo, SomaTone has crafted music, audio effects and voiceovers for dozens of casual games. Join us as we sit down with Minkus to dig into what makes the company tick and find out what they have in store for you, in the future.

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You might not have heard of SomaTone’s Kane Minkus or Nick Thomas, but chances are you’ve listened to their work. From Mystery Case Files to Diner Dash, the California-based duo, SomaTone has crafted music, audio effects and voiceovers for dozens of casual games. Join us as we sit down with Minkus to dig into what makes the company tick and find out what they have in store for you, in the future.

How did you come up with the name “SomaTone?”

The name actually came out of the location where we started. I remember sitting in a café in the SomaDistrict of San Francisco, brainstorming names.

We had a quick formation! I was in Nashville producing records and running a film and record production studio on Music Row when I called Nick in San Francisco and said, “We need to work together; that’s the next step for the both of us!” He agreed, and I packed up a U-Haul and moved to SF a few days later.

We decided on SomaTone because our first studios were in the “Soma” District of SF, and we liked “Tone” for music tone. Also, since Soma is Latin for “Body”, we thought that was a cool play on words since we believe audio affects people on many levels — especially as a kinesthetic experience.

How did you become involved in creating audio for casual games?

Nick had this idea in college to score music for the Web. I thought he was nuts, but I used to humor him because he’d buy me coffee when we’d meet to talk about this idea. He’d try to convince me the Internet would be a great place to create music and sound effects (SFX) for multimedia. He was ahead of his time by about three years — which is much better then being 20 years ahead of your time in terms of having an idea meet the market!

When we started SomaTone, we began speaking to online multimedia companies about creating music and SFX for them. They were slow to adopt it, but we were charming and gave them great material to put on their Web sites. We were one of the first teams around to begin scoring and sound designing online destinations; now we work on around 75 sites a year.

One afternoon while browsing the Web, I stumbled across Big Fish Games. I checked out their games and thought, “This would be even better with our music and sfx in them!” At that time, music and sfx in downloadable games weren’t given the attention they receive today. I connected with one of the head honchos at Big Fish and suggested we work on one of their upcoming projects. That project happened to be Mystery Case Files: Huntsville.

The massive success of that game was huge in opening the door to many other groups. We now work with Big Fish on many of their titles, as well as PlayFirst, PopCap, Oberon, SandLot, MumboJumbo, Wild Tangent, Last Day of Work, Arkadium, Encore, Warner Bros, Sony and tons of other smaller developers. We get the honor of adding our scores, sfx and voice over (VO) to about 100 downloadable games a year.

What are the challenges in creating music for casual games?

There are lots of challenges related to scoring a casual game. One of the biggest is how to keep the score interesting when only about five to seven minutes of music can be in a game. We try everything we can, from game to game, to keep both the content and integration interesting. We’ll score in all sorts of little segments that overlap or in layers that can be used over each other to increase or reduce tension. We approach each game with a fresh perspective to write a score that supports its narrative and unique character and design.

Other challenges include keeping the game sounding as fantastic as the audio does in the studio. Since everything is super-compressed before it reaches the listeners, it’s important to know both how to produce and mix a piece of music well for this medium.

Also, it’s important to know how to craft great melodies for these games as well as when to have a melody in and out of a cue. We believe well-crafted music both goes unnoticed as an independent element (meaning it blends in with the experience) and creates elements that can be remembered afterwards. It takes real crafting to be both unobtrusive as well as memorable.

The SomaTone Music Library on your Web site features over 50 different music styles and growing. How do you create and offer so many styles of music ?

I used to write everything in the beginning, and although I have a good command over diverse styles, we knew success in servicing so many different clients would come from having a team of great composers! I oversee and produce every piece of music that comes through our studios now, but our composers are brilliant and are creatively bursting at the seams.

We have a very, very difficult screening process. I get about 150 emails from composers a month who want to work for us. At some point, I usually go through all of them and look for new talent to work with. But their demo reel has to be slammin. Nick and I have worked with and around some of the best talent in the music industry — such as Walter Afanasief (producer for Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, Jessica Simpson and Ricky Martin), Chuck Ainley (engineer for Dire Straits and Sheryl Crow) and BT (film composer for Monster, Stealth and The Fast & The Furious) — so we’re incredibly picky about who is working on our team. We even look internationally for talent, and have recently set up teams in Munich, Germany and Beijing, China because we found composers there that were outstanding, and wanted them on board with our existing teams in SF and LA.

We believe music is strongest when it’s worked on by several professionals. This isn’t possible usually because composers are often just their own entity in seclusion. We wanted a team of guys that could support each other, keep each other’s ideas and sounds fresh, and work off each other to build a whole that was greater than the parts. When our composers share and work on each other’s music the results are superb. Also, for the most part, everyone works under one roof. We believe in the camaraderie, team work and instant accessibility to lots of talent.

Wow, you’ve worked with some very famous people in Hollywood! How is creating music for casual games similar to creating working with the films and music industries?

Downloadable games have a lot of resemblances to films. Gaming in general has adopted a very cinematic quality for audio; in fact, we often use the same process when scoring, sound designing and recording VO for a film. Downloadable games on average tend to be very linear, or at least mostly linear. This means we take the time to capture the game play of all our games and project the videos on our studio flat screens when scoring and sound designing them. Scoring and sound designing to them linearly allows us to cinematically develop the experience and build the tension and release throughout the game.

Although good interactive audio engines are hard to come by, we make the best of the linear relationship of the gameplay by creating music that builds off itself, adds drama, or has thematic elements that come in and out as the game progresses. Our sfx libraries and music sample libraries are the same for both films and games, so we’re able to continue to make our games sound like they’re mini-interactive film experiences. The Mystery Case Files series is a great example of where we worked to give the game a film or TV mystery movie experience.

Peggle from Popcap is a new release featuring work by SomaTone. How did you create the music and sfx?

We must have played the game for hours internally. We love it! PopCap came to us with lots of great ideas, and they also looked to us to partner with them on the audio concepting for the game. One thing we love to do with each game is get inside of it and suggest ways the audio can enhance the experience of playing it. We think the sfx in Peggle supports the experience and character of the game. Between having different characters, each with their own “power up,” as well as pseudo modern arcade sounds crossed with a sense of humor and playfulness, we had our work cut out for us!

Musically, the game is built very interestingly. It’s programmed in a format called MOD, which allows us to build a set of sounds we’ll use for scoring the whole game. The advantage is that you can fit a large amount of music in the game without making it a huge download size. The challenge is getting the score to sound authentic and good within the limitations of the MOD engine. For that, we brought a specialist in MOD onboard who nailed it. Now he handles all our MOD programming so our composers can create music freely and continue to get the SomaTone sound into games. Interactively, Peggle is built with layers that add to the music as you clear the board. That way, the music gets more exciting as the game goes on. Next time you play, see if you can tell where the music changes .

Regale us with some of the behind-the-scenes magic that went into Abra Academy, another recently new release

Abra Academy, a new Big Fish release, was another fun title to work on. The score is a Danny Elfman-style score with the twist of a wicked witch feel. To get this sound, we overdosed for a while on Danny Elfman music — I hope everyone reading this is aware of who he is! His music is brilliant and quirky, and a challenge to imitate or adapt. But that was our goal.

We used our huge bank of symphony recordings we’ve collected and designed over the years. Adding quirky orchestral percussion and witch-like melodies, the music for Abra Academy came out great. If you’re into Danny Elfman’s music, you should check out this score and let us know what you think! Right from the start of the Main Menu cue, you can get a sense of the richness and complexity of the orchestration and music. Yet it stays playful and fun. We’re very happy with the final results of these cues.

The sfx for this game were mostly organic, meaning they were made up of instruments and recordings of real sounds (versus synthesized sounds). We used a lot of orchestra instruments to create the sfx and represent game events that needed sfx. One of the ways the composers and sound designers can work together is, after a music cue was written for this game, the composers would take samples from their libraries and hand them off to the sfx team to give the sfx the feel of being almost an extension of the music. We’re into the sfx and music being in harmony with each other both musically and sonically.

Of the music SomaTone has created for casual games, what’s your favorite?

It’s really hard to have a favorite because each game comes together in its own unique way, but I really thought the Mystery Case Files series (Big Fish Games), Sweetopia (PlayFirst), Travelogue Paris (Big Fish), Peggle (PopCap), Abra Academy (Big Fish) and the Virtual Villagers series (Last Day At Work) came together beautifully. AND, some of my favorite stuff hasn’t been released yet! We have some HOT scores coming out in games this year. The downloadable games of 2007 will sound awesome!

What’s the best music for a casual game you didn’t compose?

We all thought the music in Atlantis Sky Patrol from Big Fish was well-crafted and well-implemented. It’s great electronic music for the game and something we always appreciated. We actually got in touch with that composer to discuss future work together.

Also, I really like Daniel Bernstein’s work from Sandlot Games. He has a good sense of what works in games and has always created great music for his projects. Recently, he brought on our team to score SandLot’s games (as his company is growing), but perhaps he’ll hang out in the studio some day and write with us for a game of his.

What advice do you have for people interested in pursuing interactive audio as a career?

I’d suggest taking a look at how games are designed. One thing we realized after we began working with our game developers is that it’s helpful to understand how they’re building the games and what issues they’re facing with audio and interactivity. We spent time learning about the steps they take and the way several game engines work — and we still often read the design documents of the games we score.

Also, I’d suggest teaming up with a team that’s done a lot of casual games. Many composers miss lots of important details about both the technical and creative side of making a downloadable game work well. We end up reworking a lot of games that have been improperly scored, sound designed or integrated. Knowing what you’re doing is a huge step in being able to create a product that’ll work well. Other than that, get those chops up, because our clients are demanding high quality work these days

Where do you think the future of music is going in casual games?

Casual games are always expanding their horizons and evolving – this is one of the reasons we love this industry! One of the areas we think casual games are pushing into new territory is in the interactivity and use of audio in games. We are asked more and more to work with a team early on to help design a plan for exciting integration into the game mechanic. Currently we are working on a new audio engine to help create greater interactivity between the game, music and sfx. Once released this game will help game designers have much larger amounts of music and higher levels of interactivity between the game and the audio. Music scores and sfx in casual games have become more and more important to telling the story and supporting characters. We think casual games will become more complex in their story lines and characters in order to provide a deeper and richer experience for the user. Of course we are right there supporting the complexity of each story line and character with music and sfx!

Finally, what music do you enjoy in your car or at home, when you’re relaxing and not thinking about work?

This is a really funny question. My first thought was NOTHING. I love silence when I’m out of the studio, just to relax that part of my brain and ears. However, the reality is that only lasts for about an hour after work, and then I’m dialing my IPod to get some new ideas. I love and appreciate a wide variety of music. I’m a big fan of Justin Timberlake for his great beat programming and vocal production. I also love Josh Groban for his outrageously amazing voice, as well as the perfect pop production from his producers. You’ll also find me listening to lots of Bill Evans and Miles Davis — the best ways for me to relax. And then I always have a Hanz Zimmer or John Williams score close by. The rest of the gaps are filled with language tapes I listen to, as I continue to aspire to speak with all our developers and composers in their native languages!