Nathan McCree Interview: 21 Years of Pioneering Game Audio
Nathan McCree is best known for creating the gorgeous music and sound effects for the original Tomb Raider trilogy. However, he has worked on numerous other projects during his 21-year career: from tacking the Mega Drive sound card for Asterix, to stepping in as audio director on Silent Hill and LEGO franchises, to even writing a song for The Spice Girls.
In this indepth and honest interview, McCree discusses his journey to becoming a game sound creator and shares his experiences on his works past and present. With the help of Harry Hinds and the Music of Tomb Raider community, we ask him to recollect his work on the Tomb Raider franchise and ask whether his soundtracks will be released on CD. Along the way, he provides some rich insight into technical aspects of creating game sound and discusses how he was called in to rescue the audio for more than a few big franchises. McCree supplemented this interview with a series of MP3s showcasing his defining works.
Interview Subject: Nathan McCree
Interviewer: Harry Hinds, Chris Greening, Tomb Raider Community
Editor: Chris Greening
Coordination: Chris Greening, Harry Hinds
Harry: Nathan McCree, many thanks for taking the time to talk to us today. First of all, could you tell us about your musical background, education, and influences?
Nathan McCree: My father is very musical and I remember when I was a child he was always listening to classical music on the home hi-fi when he was at home. He would always make me listen and would test me to see if I could recognise the composer. I didn’t always get the answer right, but the process introduced me to a whole range of classical music from an early age.
My father also sang in the local church choir and so by the time I was six years old he had me enrolled as a chorister. I enjoyed singing in the choir and I would often stay late on a Friday evening after the other choristers had left, holding the treble line on my own against the rest of the adults. The choir was good training for me. It taught me a lot about harmony and, as a result, I would often make up my own harmony parts to pop tracks on the radio. I started learning to play the Piano when I was eleven and I developed a passion for synthesizers and electronic music.
It was around this time that we got our first home computer too – a Sinclair ZX81. I remember painfully typing in game programs word for word from magazine listings and being fascinated how it all worked. When I reached thirteen my Dad, recognising my growing interest in computers and electronic music, bought me my first keyboard – a Korg Delta. I used to borrow his 4-track reel-to-reel tape recorder and I would spend hours carefully layering synth patterns and making songs.
Harry: From there, what led you to becoming a video game composer?
Nathan McCree: By the time I was fifteen I started hanging out at a local 24-track recording studio with a friend of mine. When the studio had ‘down time’ we would use all the kit and record our own music. I guess the time I spent at this studio made me realise that I wanted to spend the rest of my life writing music. We formed a band and when I turned sixteen I was ready to leave school and try my luck in the pop world. My Dad was against the idea, however, and pushed me to do my A-Levels and to get a Degree – which I begrudgingly did.
In 1992 I graduated from Kingston University with a Degree in Computer Science and Software Engineering and started searching for a programming job. Eventually I found one with the legendary Core Design. My first assignment was to code a music sequencer for the Sega Mega Drive. I finished the project ahead of schedule so I used the remaining time to write some music using the sequencer to demonstrate what it could do. My boss liked the music so much that he asked me if I would like to write the music for Asterix and the Great Rescue. Of course I jumped at the chance. I had a job change overnight and have remained a composer and sound designer to this day.
Harry: You joined Core Design back in 1993. Could you share with us your early experiences at the company, writing the utterly catchy soundtracks for the Astérix series? What were the challenges of working with the 16-bit Mega Drive system?
Nathan McCree: I guess the most challenging thing was designing the PCI circuit board that would house the Yahama chip, identical to the one in the Mega Drive. Once I had that constructed and plugged into a PC I was then able to write the software to control it. When it came to actually writing music with this system there were of course further challenges. Firstly the Yamaha chip I was using only had six voice channels, which meant that it could only play six notes simultaneously. In reality I only had five channels for music, because I had to reserve one for sfx. Secondly, all the instrument sounds had to be programmed from scratch (there were no factory presets for example), so I had coded a sound editor as part of the sequencer which allowed me to program my own patches and to save them.
Another major challenge was actually using the sequencer. It was nothing like the sequencers you might use today. It was what was known in the trade as a music tracker. It looked a bit like a fruit machine, with six reels. Notes were added by using the cursor keys to scroll up and down and left and right across the reels. Once you had navigated to the required ‘slot’ you pressed one of the QWERTY keys which had been mapped to a piano keyboard, and this added a note. Something like this:
A=C3, W=C#3, S=D3, E=D#3, D=E3, F=F3, T=F#3, G=G3, Y=G#3, H=A3, U=A#3, J=B3, K=C4
There were other various hotkeys which did things like Octave Up and Octave Down and lots of other special commands which would provide real-time controls like vibrato and portamento. There were of course play and stop hotkeys so you could hear how things were sounding along with other loop commands that could be used to sequence the patterns that you were making. It was all really good fun but very limiting. You really had to work the sequencer to its maximum to make the thing sound any good.
Harry: Soon enough, though, you were writing soundtracks for CD-based systems, such as Soulstar (Mega CD), Dragonstone (Amiga CD32), and Swagman (PlayStation). How did you approach the composition and implementation of these titles?
Nathan McCree: Well it was a whole different ball game. Instead of 5-note polyphony, I had just under one hundred as I was able to sequence professional keyboards. I was using three at the time, each with 32-note polyphony. So it felt like I had limitless power. Also I was using Steinberg’s Cubase sequencer, which was vastly more powerful than the chip-based sequencer I had programmed for the Mega Drive. So it really was a different experience.
I drew on my influences as a child having listened to countless pieces of classical music on my Dad’s records. I wasn’t a trained orchestrator, but I knew how an orchestra sounded and, having studied music at A-Level, I knew about all the instruments and how they are put together to make different textures. So away I went. I wrote what I wanted to hear and what I felt was right for the project.
That said, the implementation approach was different for sure. Usually new technology brings new and improved functionality, for the composers though, this time we lost something. With chip-based music we were able to loop tunes seamlessly but with the new CD-systems, although we had more storage memory, run-time memory was still limited so the digitally recorded music was streamed off disc in real-time (normal CD playback). The added ‘seek time’ required by the CD laser head unfortunately introduced a few hundred milliseconds of silence while the laser head repositioned itself at the start of the track.
As a result of all this, I had to rethink how best to use CD music in games. I had more memory for music for starters so this helped and, in fact, shaped the way I wrote music for the projects to come. With more memory I wrote longer tunes. The tunes became more story-telling and location specific and were repeated or reused less often throughout the game.
Harry: Could you tell us a little more about the differences in sound design (beyond music composition) for CD-based vs. cartridge-based systems?
Nathan McCree: Cartridge-based systems had very limited memory and, although audio sample technology was available, it wasn’t possible to use sampled sounds for all the audio effects without compromising other aspects of the game, like graphics for example. There was only so much memory to go around. (In fact to this day there are still memory ‘fights’ between the discipline directors!) So I would use my handy Mega Drive Sound Editor to synthesize all the individual effects I needed for each game. Typically there would be something like thirty to fifty sound effects.
The CD-based consoles as I mentioned earlier, provided much more memory to play with so for the first time I was able to sample not only the music (digital recordings) but also every single sound I needed for the game, and not just thirty or fifty, but hundreds. With the advent of mp3 technology this number multiplied quickly. (Games these days often have thousands of individual sound effects). So the sound design was different. I would typically source my sound effects from three places. 1) Sound Effects library CDs, 2) Synthesizers / sound generators / sound processing software or 3) recording stuff in front of a microphone (often mimicking the sound I needed with my mouth and then processing it to make it sound just right). In addition to the increased number and quality of the sounds I could make with the CD-based consoles I was able to use the music streaming system of the console (normal CD track playback) to play long ambience tracks instead of a piece of music, enabling me to provide a much more detailed and realistic audio landscape for a particular location.
Harry: Did these titles prepare you for Tomb Raider?
Nathan McCree: Sure, these earlier titles prepared me for Tomb Raider. I learned a great deal about the machines I was working on and the capabilities of the sequencing software. By the time Tomb Raider came along I had even more powerful synthesizers with better sounding instruments.
Harry: Released in 1996, Tomb Raider is almost two decades old. Looking back, how do you feel about the project and its soundtrack all these years later? Did you expect it to be a smash hit? How do you feel when people continue to express gratitude for your music at events like Video Games Live?
Nathan McCree: I am immensely proud to have been a part of the team that started i