The name might not be too familiar to you, buy Tommy Tallarico has been making superb videogame music for years. He started off making early Game Boy compositions, before moving to the 16-bit consoles and delivering the likes of Aladdin and The Lion King. He’s now best known for his Video Games Live concerts. We caught up with Tommy to find out how he broke into the industry.
Hi Tommy, what was your first experience of videogames?
I still remember the first time I saw one – it was 1975 and my dad and I were at a neighbour’s house. They had a Colecovision Telstar, which was a big woodgrain console with all these Pong games. I remember us marvelling at this, because what people often don’t realise today was that back then we didn’t even have remote controls for our televisions. So to be able to turn a knob and see something on the screen moving under your control was just mind-blowing. The next day my dad took me out and bought me one and I still have it to this day.
Presumably you already had a passion for music too?
Yes, especially guitar and piano. And when I was ten and Star Wars came out, it was pretty amazing musically. The music of John Williams in that film was the first time I paid attention to symphonic music.
How did the two interests merge?
By the late Seventies I was taking my dad’s giant cassette recorder down to the local pizza parlour where the videogame machines were. I would record all my favourite sounds and music from the games and take it back home and splice them together. Then I’d invite my friends over, put some videogames on, play the cassette back and get up in front of the TV with a guitar and play along to the music.
So you were putting on your own little videogame concerts, even back then?
That’s right, that was my childhood. Of course, being a kid growing up in the Seventies and Eighties, I never thought I would become a videogame composer because at the time there was no such thing.
Which other early computers and consoles did you experiment with?
In our neighbourhood you were either an Atari or Intellivision kid. As I was into sports, I had an Intellivision as it had better sports games such as Baseball, Football, Boxing and Skiing. My friends were mainly Atari though! From there I had a VIC-20, then an Apple IIc and IIe. And a Colecovision. But no matter what machine, when there was music I learned it, even something simple like Snafu with its 15 notes and 20-second loop. On one hand I’d be appreciating Beethoven and John Williams and also in the same session I’d be playing the music to Pac-Man!
How did you get started in the games industry?
I grew up in Massachusetts. When I turned 21, I left my parents crying on the doorstep as I was the eldest and wanted to go to California, determined to make it big somehow in the entertainment industry. So I got in my little two-seater sports car and drove out there with no money, no job, no friends and no place to stay. Just me and the car.
Brave move. You must have been pretty confident?
Yes, and naive! I sometimes look back and think, my god, was I insane? What was I thinking? But at the time it was such a strong feeling, which I think came from my grandfather. Both my grandparents came to the US from Italy, leaving everything they knew to make a better life for us in America. And they didn’t even speak the language so they had it ten times worse. That stuck with me and my grandfather always said don’t take anything for granted, ensuring we knew how important it was that we didn’t squander any opportunities.
What happened when you reached California?
The very first day I was there I picked up a newspaper and saw a job selling keyboards at a music shop. They said I could start the next day, but I was still homeless for three weeks. I slept under a pier in Huntingdon Beach. I figured if you’re homeless, you might as well do it at the beach in California, right?
How did the job go?
I only did it for a day! I had brought three T-shirts with me and back then not many people had videogame shirts. I had a TurboGrafx-16 shirt, which had only come out in Japan at that point, but I’d got it at this fair after standing in line for five hours and telling them what I thought of the console. To me it was a badge of honour, and the very first customer who walked in happened to be a producer working for Richard Branson named Seth Mendelsohn. Virgin was starting a videogame company right down the street and he saw my shirt and was impressed. We chatted briefly about videogames and he said ‘Dya wanna job?’ just like that. I’d been in California for three days, I was homeless, but in the videogame industry!
What was the job at Virgin?
I was hired as a games tester but would bug the VP of the company every day to tell him that whenever they needed music to let me know, just give me a chance. And then after about three to four months, the opportunity arose.
Who was the VP and which game was it?
A guy named Dr Stephen Clarke Wilson. He was the man who gave me my shot. Virgin were working on the Game Boy version of Prince Of Persia and I did the audio and music for it. At the time, the Game Boy had the biggest installed base so it was a big deal. It ended up winning a bunch of awards for the sound so they made me the music and sound guy. That’s how I got in.
Was it new music or based on the original?
Partly both. Jordan Mechner’s dad did the original music so I took those MIDI files, converted them and added my own stuff too. In addition to doing the sound, I was still working as a games tester.
Virgin must have been an exciting place to work at back then. What was the first game you worked on in your new role?
The Sega Genesis [aka Mega Drive] had been out a couple of years so Virgin was working on a bunch of games for that and the Super Nintendo. The first game I worked on was Muhammad Ali’s Boxing; that was my first experience with the Genesis sound chip and six-voice FM sound. The SNES had an eight-channel chip and all sample channels, so we would work on the Genesis and convert over to the Nintendo machine. We all liked working on the Genesis better even though we knew the SNES had better capabilities. Sega were more open to developers so the Genesis was much easier to get around.
Quite a few well-known games begin to appear on your CV at this point.
After the boxing game we did Global Gladiators, which was the first time I worked with David Perry and Doug TenNapel. After that, our next game with the same team was Cool Spot. Global Gladiators wasn’t a critical or financial success, but Cool Spot was a big-selling game and won a bunch of awards. Then the same ten guys and one girl created Disney’s Aladdin, which was a huge, huge hit, and about then we started riding in limos with Richard Branson…
Crikey – really?
Yeah, we were the golden boys back then. I had dinner with Richard and rode in his limo a couple of times. And because he was interested mainly in music, whenever he visited the offices he always came and sat in my studio.
What was he like?
A great guy. Inspirational, amazing personality, smart, yet down to earth. For a young kid aged 21/22 to have somebody like that in your life was a huge thrill. I can’t say enough great things about him. At that time you were doing a lot of sound and music: Global Gladiators, Cool Spot, Aladdin, The Jungle Book, RoboCop Vs The Terminator. How did you do so many in such a short time? Nowadays when you do a videogame soundtrack they want four hours of music and a live orchestra. But back then most games were so small you had ten levels, a menu screen and end credits, so you needed 12 songs, all in MIDI, and they couldn’t be very long because they took up a lot of cartridge space. So from a music writing standpoint it’s about 30 minutes of MIDI music. The hardest part back then was actually getting it to sound like something. I spent more time than most just getting it to sound coherent rather than actually writing the music because the tools back then were so brutal.
You were working on many licensed properties. Did you often get the chance to work with the original music?
It tended to be a cross-between. We got the original Terminator theme but we couldn’t use the actual recording so we redid that in MIDI. Then for Aladdin we got these scores from Tim Rice and Alan Menken and they said we could use whatever we could. I hired a couple of guys who could read music, which I couldn’t at that point, and they’d convert the scores to MIDI files and limit them to six or eight monophonic channels. I would then take them and put them onto the SNES and Genesis and get them to sound like what you heard in the game. Then we wrote additional original music in the same vein.
The move from cartridge to CD storage was imminent – presumably this had a huge impact for you?
Yes, totally. That was the turning point for videogame music. We worked on one of the earlier CD games called The 7th Guest, which was a great game and sold a lot. The first CD console we developed for was the Sega CD [aka Mega-CD].
This was the Sega CD version of The Terminator?
That’s right. But here’s the interesting thing. If you played The Terminator CD, the graphics were still very much 16-bit-looking and the music you’d hear would be like music on the radio or on an album – and it was a bit jarring. So I would get into screaming matches with the producers because they told me they didn’t want that proper music in the game. They said it doesn’t sound like a videogame and I said exactly – it doesn’t have to any more!
You presumably left The Electric Playground to start Video Games Live – had that idea been in your head for a while?
I always wanted somebody to do something like VGL because I always wanted to go to something like that. But then nobody did. They had done a couple of symphony concerts in Japan, but it was very traditional with everyone in tuxedos and such. What I wanted was giant video screens, synchronised video, music from varied games such as Kingdom Hearts, Halo, Warcraft, Metal Gear Solid – and most of all to make a big rock and roll show out of it. And that all comes from being inspired by one of my family members who just happens to be a famous rock star…
This would be Steven Tyler?
That’s right, cousin Steven, born Tallarico. That must have been amazing, growing up a close relation to Aerosmith’s lead singer… I always credit Steven as having the biggest influence I had. When you’re eight years old and you’re seeing this guy – or just big cousin Steven as he is to you – up on stage performing in front of 30,000 people in a stadium, you can’t help but think yeah that’s a pretty cool job, that’s what I wanna do when I grow up. And I never thought it was an impossible dream as I always thought if he could do it, so could I.
What was reaction like to the idea of VGL?
Everybody thought I was completely insane, like they did when I put the Terminator music on the disc. I formed the company in 2002 and it took three years to put the first one on at the Hollywood Bowl. Its capacity was 11,000 and everyone said I’d be lucky if 1,000 turned up – and we sold out. So I always know I have a great idea when people tell me I’m crazy!
Notable Tommy Tallarico Games