Tom Salta is particularly unique among modern composers in that he had a full career of performing, songwriting, and producing pop and dance hits with many top label artists before eventually moving to the world of writing music for video games and media. After making his mark on the Tom Clancy’s franchise with scores to the H.A.W.X. and Ghost Recon game series, as well as the Prince of Persia franchise with his score to The Forgotten Sands, Tom began a beautiful relationship with the Halo franchise, working on the Anniversary editions of the series’ first two games as well as two original Halo game titles (Spartan Assault and Spartan Strike). Today we speak to him about his work on Halo: The Fall of Reach (The Animated Series), as well as other elements of his work and life.
Hi Tom, thank you for taking the time to speak with us. As some people may know, you started out working on pop music records, before creating your Atlas Plug project and using it as an entry into the world of scoring video games (as well as other media project types). Looking back at your professional roots, how important are your original skill sets for the work you do in 2015 onwards?
Thanks, great to be here. As they say, hindsight is always 20/20. Looking back to even my earliest musical endeavors, I can see how everything served a purpose. For starters, as a composer, it’s certainly a great advantage being able to fully produce, mix, and master my own projects. Being a one-stop-shop allows me to work faster, more efficiently, and offer a greater value to my clients. And it’s not just the music production skill sets that I’ve learned over my 25+ years in the business, but it’s also learning how to be a team player. I’ve seen time and time again how the most successful and happy people at the top of their game are usually the nicest people to deal with, even under the most stressful situations. I always strive to model that. Simply put, the more people enjoy working with you, the more work you’ll end up getting.
On the creative side, it’s a huge advantage having worked with so many different artists and different kinds of projects over the years. It’s enabled me to jump right into a huge array of projects in every style imaginable. Case in point: it reminds me of something I heard when I was watching the Remaking the Legend documentary on YouTube about the making of Halo 2 Anniversary. The audio director, Kris Mellroth, referred to me at one point, mentioning my “encyclopaedic knowledge” of synthesizers. I’ve never heard it said like that, but it’s actually true. I’ve been heavily into synthesizers starting in 1985 and all the way through the 1990’s. I can’t tell you how incredibly useful it was to be able to listen to the original Halo 1 and 2 scores and identify most all of the synthesizers and modules that were originally used. That’s exactly the kind of thing I’ve been doing since the mid-eighties and especially when I programmed and toured with artists like Bobby Brown and Mary J. Blige. So for Halo, when I heard a particular synth sound, a string patch, or a percussion sample, I could pretty much tell exactly what was used, and in fact, I still own many of the synths that were used on those scores.
With the video game industry being a lot less localised than film and TV, game composers specifically seem to have more flexibility in their choice of locale. Is this part of why you chose to base yourself in New York, instead of somewhere like Los Angeles?
Any time I give advice to aspiring composers, I will always tell them that if I had no family and was starting over, I would certainly choose to live in California, as it just increases your chances of getting more work because the networking opportunities are greater and sometimes it’s simply required. But it doesn’t mean you have to live there in order to be successful as a game or film composer.
In my case, I chose to stay in the New York area because that’s where my roots are. I have a family and I didn’t feel right about uprooting everyone solely based on giving me a “better chance” in the film or game industry. Instead, I’d rather be the guy whose reputation is so strong that it won’t matter where my home base is. I predicted early on that working remotely would only become more and more common, which it is, and when necessary, I am very used to travelling anywhere in the world to meet with or work with my clients.
It’s funny, but this question relates to a philosophy I’ve had my entire career. I’ve always found myself to be the exception to the rule, so I’ve stopped worrying about what most people do. There is a very small percentage of top tier composers and actors who are based in various places around the world. Their reputations are so strong that they are still sought after, regardless of their location. This is the model that I strive to emulate.
Halo: The Fall of Reach isn’t your first foray into the Halo universe, of course, having previously worked on Halo: Spartan Assault, Halo: Spartan Strike, Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary, and Halo 2: Anniversary. How did you first get involved with writing music for the Halo universe?
Ha! The blame for that goes to my good friend and long time colleague Paul Lipson. Paul was a freelance composer when I first met him back in 2003 through an organization called G.A.N.G. (Game Audio Network Guild). We quickly hit it off and stayed in close contact as our careers progressed over the years. One of the things we both had in common was our passion for video games and our taste in music, and we were both Halo fans from the very beginning. Fast forward almost a decade, we had both progressed along different paths in our careers. Sometime in 2011, Paul gave me a call and told me that he was working with Microsoft on recreating the score of Halo: Combat Evolved for the Anniversary release, and asked if I wanted to join his team. I almost dropped the phone! Halo was my greatest inspiration for entering the game music industry, so having the unprecedented opportunity to recreate that original score note for note was literally a dream come true. And that’s how it all started for me in the Halo universe.
How much of a difference was there between your processes working on previous Halo projects and your work on Halo: The Fall of Reach? Was the difference in medium the biggest factor, or was there much more to it?
Yes, I’d say the difference in medium had the most impact on the way I approached the music for this. By its very nature, a film (or any other linear medium) allows you to look at the entire piece as a whole and plan out how things develop, connect and relate to each other. It also requires that the music is written with the dialog in mind, and in the case of Halo: The Fall of Reach, there was certainly a lot of that.
Given that Halo: The Fall of Reach is a prequel story to the Halo series, which has such a unique and special musical imprint, was there any expectation or pressure to somehow reference any of the previous scores in your music?
Actually, it was a combination, but more often than not, I was explicitly asked not to reference existing themes. Foreshadow, yes, but reveal existing themes, no. The exception was the 117 theme originally from Halo 4. They wanted me to reference that in two specific places in the film. Other than that, it was more about alluding to or foreshadowing certain themes rather than using them outright.
This approach made sense to me. This was the origin story of Master Chief and the blue team, so, chronologically speaking, none of the iconic legacy Halo themes existed yet. I wanted to find ways to reverse engineer the musical elements that would eventually become identifiable with Halo music and find ways to organically evolve into them, starting with “a seed” and letting it grow into the legacy Halo style we all know and love.
One example of this approach was the decision to use a children’s choir rather than an adult choir. The Fall of Reach is the origin story of the Spartans, starting with their abduction into the Spartan 2 project as young kids, so what better way to foreshadow the famous Monk theme in Halo: Combat Evolved than by using a children’s choir?
Another very deliberate decision was the way I wrote the main theme. I really wanted a theme that could somehow be connected to the 117 theme, the Halo: Combat Evolved “monk” theme, and the Spartan kids, and have a simple, memorable melody that could be weaved throughout the entire score. I think that was accomplished with The Fall of Reach theme. The heroism comes from the instrumentation, the shape of the melody shares some commonalities with the 117 theme, and if you’re really paying attention, the famous “monk theme” can actually be heard as a counterpoint line under this theme.
Lastly, there was another very unique aspect to the Fall of Reach story, and that was the camaraderie that developed between the blue team over the years. Early on, while I was exploring various themes and ideas, there was this one theme that I kept coming back to, and I found that it worked very well throughout the film every time the young Spartans were together. It became, in effect, their “camaraderie theme”, starting from when they “bonded” during their first “test mission” in the woods, all the way to planning their first attack against the covenant ship, and even into the epilogue of the film (don’t worry, no spoilers).
In terms of creating your hybrid orchestral score for Halo: The Fall of Reach, how much of it was virtual and how much was live? I’m guessing that ratio can change wildly from project to project.
Yes, the ratio can be affected by many factors, especially time and budget. In the case of Halo: The Fall of Reach, we decided to focus mainly on the choir, solo voices, and solo cello for live recording, and handle the rest with virtual orchestration. My arranger, Jonas Friedman, was very helpful assisting me throughout the process as the music was developed and polished virtually.
There’s a beautiful song in the soundtrack titled Take This Life. What can you tell us about working on this song specifically, and the lovely vocalist you have featured?
That song happened quite unexpectedly. I come from a songwriting background, and I always love it when there’s a song that is tied directly to a film or melody from a score. In this case, while I was working on a bittersweet scene involving Dr. Halsey meeting John (who would become 117, i.e. Master Chief) for the first time as a young child, I fell upon this touching, yet catchy piano phrase. The inspiration hit me like a ton of bricks, and within 30 minutes, I had a fully developed melody and structure to a new song. It was such a powerful moment for me, because I heard in my mind what it could become. I shared the idea with Paul and he immediately “got it”. He shared it with the Lead Franchise director, Frank O’Connor, who instantly saw where this was going and wanted to write the lyrics to it. I think I had his lyrics back within 24 hours!
Once I saw that this was really going to happen, I called upon my friend and amazing vocalist, Jillian Aversa, who had sung on some of the prior Halo scores, and explained to her the concept. She was incredibly excited and moved by the story behind the lyrics. She and I modified some of the lyrics to make them more song-like and recorded it within a day or two. All of this happened incredibly fast, and all while I was in the heat of deadlines with the score. Looking back, I’m really happy and amazed that we were able to pull it off, given everything that was going on.
It’s hard to describe what a privilege and honor it is to be involved in writing the first original pop song in the Halo franchise’s history. This is the first original Halo song ever written by the creators of Halo, with lyrics that tell a story from a point of view that has never been addressed in any of the other novels or games, including The Fall of Reach. It tells a story from the voice of the young children whose lives were ‘taken away’ against their will to be part of the Spartan 2 program. When you think about it, it’s a very sad and dark chapter in the Halo universe.
You once mentioned that your dream project was to work on a Prince of Persia title, and the dream came true when you scored the Wii, DS, and PSP versions of 2010’s Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands. Now you’re also part of the Halo universe after the original Halo: Combat Evolved helped inspire your move towards video games. What’s the next dream you’re trying to make come true (or is already coming true)?
That’s a great question, and certainly one that touches on some very deeply personal aspects of my life. Chasing your dreams is usually a very “risky” endeavour and not something that guarantees ‘success’ in life by most people’s standards. I am truly blessed to be doing what I do, and being able to make a career out of it, supporting myself and my entire family – it doesn’t get any better than that. It doesn’t mean that it’s easy or always fun, but each day I’m able to make a living making music, I remind myself that I’m living the dream and I’m incredibly grateful.
Looking to the future, there are so many ways it could go. I’d love to work on a TV series. I’d love to take on a major film. But it would have to be the right match for me. Something where the director and I feel that I’m uniquely suited for the job. My first love has always been video games, and I don’t envision myself leaving that arena behind any time soon – there are still so many uncharted places to go in games! I’d love to be on the cutting edge of a new Virtual Reality franchise. I’d love to work on an open world game like Skyrim – something that takes you to a completely new world and allows the music to play a huge role immersing you in that place. But I’m fine with whatever comes along – the adventure is part of the excitement.
What are your favourite tools and toys in the studio? Instruments, plugins, synths, motivational cat posters?
Ah, the toys! It’s so funny to see how, over the years, almost all my hardware is gone and all I’m left with is a keyboard controller and a bunch of computer screens. But some things I’ll never let go of, regardless of how seldom they get used – like my Minimoog and Roland 1080’s and 5080. In the plugin world, it’s a constantly evolving journey. Some of my favorite libraries and plugins have always been from Spectrasonics. Other plugins that I currently use a lot are from UAD, iZotope (Ozone), Nexus, Sonnox, McDSP, and most recently, FabFilter.
How do you go about maintaining a balanced existence as a busy composer?
Another great question. It’s all about balance. I would never be able to do what I do without the support of my wife and kids. My personal life affects every aspect of my life, and nothing is more important to me than family. One way I’ve kept perspective as a husband and a dad is to always try to make the time to be there when I’m needed. Any time one of my kids asks me for something, I’m usually very careful before saying “no”, even when I’m busy. And if I can’t at that very moment, I always make sure to do it as soon as possible. I’m always reminded of that old song lyric “the cat’s in the cradle…” Kids grow up fast and life goes by fast. If you don’t put the time in now, it will eventually be too late. I once heard it said that no one on their deathbed ever said that they wish they’d spent more time in the office.
Thank you Tom!
Thanks to Greg O’Connor-Read from Top Dollar PR for his role in making this interview happen.