The Sound Of Oddworld – An Interview With Michael Bross

The Sound of Oddworld - An Interview with Michael Bross [Hosted by The Gaming Liberty].
Date: 7 October, 2010
Interviewer: Retroplayer
Interviewee: Michael Bross


When I first heard the soundtrack to Oddworld: Strangers Wrath my jaw hit the floor. Not only is the game itself probably one of the best game of the last generation but the soundtrack is exceptional. So, upon starting to write for TGL in December 09 I told myself that eventually I would try and interview Michael Bross. Well, that day has come. Here it is, folks, a personal favorite of mine.

Retroplayer: First off, tell us a little about yourself, Michael.

Michael Bross: I’m a composer and have worked on games for over 15 years. Some of my early work was for games by Microprose and includes Fleet Defender, Across the Rhine and Dragonsphere. I also worked on games for Take 2 back then but I’m probably best known for my work on Oddworld’s games. Right now I live in Los Angeles and am working on projects for Red 5 Studios and Insomniac Games.

Retroplayer: Were you always interested in music even as a child?

Michael Bross: Yeah, from the age of 7. That’s when I began studying and playing music. My uncle game me an old trumpet that looked like it came from the prehistoric ages. That was the start of it all. The first music I remember being moved by was from The Beatles. I was pretty young when I heard their music. Probably around the same age as when I began playing trumpet.

Retroplayer: How did you eventually get into composing music for video games, Michael?

Michael Bross: I was first hired by a company called Paragon Software. Funny to think that I got into this type of work by answering an ad in a newspaper. Up to that point in time, I had never considered creating music for games and was instead interested in being a songwriter. I’m happy how things turned out because I really love doing the work I do.

Retroplayer: Michael, the first game you composed was `XF5700 Mantis in 1992. Over the course of your career has your internal creative process of composing changed much?

Michael Bross: Totally changed since that time. Around the year 2000, something clicked for me creatively. For most of my work before that, I really don’t like much of it, honestly, and have a hard time listening to it. I think it’s because I still had a lot of maturing to do as a creator back then.

Retroplayer: Recently, Just Add Water announced that they will be bringing Strangers Wrath to the PS3 which means a new generation of gamers will discover this classic. Tell us about what you were trying to achieve with the soundtrack and how you went about it.

Michael Bross:
I wanted the music for that game to match the depth of that world and its stories. I wanted the music to be as inspiring as its landscape and as moving as its characters while also capturing the turmoil that those characters faced. In order to go about it, I really had to get into the minds of the characters and understand who they were.

At that point the question began to come up on how I translate that understanding into music. There was also the angle of working with the director (Lorne Lanning, in this case) and getting to know what he was aiming for in creating Oddworld.

Retroplayer: You’ve also been a voice actor in Munch’s Oddysee and Strangers Wrath, Michael. How do you find this aspect of game development as opposed to composing?

Michael Bross:
Well, over the years I’ve also done work as an audio director and sound designer. Working as an audio director means I’m sometimes directing voice talent and, as you mentioned, I’ve even done some of the acting myself. I enjoy doing the voice work but it’s not a high interest of mine nor do I search out that type of work. If I’m working on a project and there’s a need, I just jump in and do it.

Retroplayer: The Oddworld game `The Brutal Ballad of Fangus Klot` (Xbox) was sadly cancelled due to Oddworld Inhabitants shutting down. Michael, were you hired to compose this game? If so, did you actually compose anything for it before it was cancelled?

Michael Bross: I was working on that game and did compose a bit of music, though much of it was still at the “sketch” level and conceptually rough.

Retroplayer: Michael, will you have any input into any of the Oddworld games currently being ported by Just Add Water?

Michael Bross: I haven’t been asked at this point but I don’t believe that there’s much of a need for my input. The folks at Oddworld are pretty demanding when it comes to quality so I’m sure that everything on the audio and music end will turn out fine. I’m looking forward to seeing the release of these games on new platforms.

Retroplayer: What can we expect from your upcoming soundtrack to the MMO Firefall?

Michael Bross: Epic sounding. Intense and heroic. I’ve been working on this project since 2006 and can’t wait to share it with the world.

Retroplayer: What was it like working alongside Oddworld Inhabitants? Do you one day wish to work on a new project with them?

Michael Bross: The team I worked with was inspiring. They were very bright, talented people and I always felt that I had to be at the top of my game when working with them. I learned a lot on those projects. Lorne Lanning, the creative director, was great to work with, too. I appreciated the challenge of his demands to constantly go beyond my perceived bounds to bring the best I could to the project.

Retroplayer: Do you eventually plan on releasing Volume 2 of the Strangers Wrath soundtrack?

Michael Bross: I would like to do so, but I just haven’t had much time to address it. My current projects need to be a higher priority since they are very deadline-driven and I don’t have much time for anything else. Someday I hope to, though.

Since you ask, I’ve done a bit of work for Oddworld recently. It’s all hush-hush at this point, though. You’ll just have to keep an eye and ear out for upcoming news from the people at Oddworld.

Retroplayer: Michael, outside of your work in video games you also compose your own solo music. Tell us about your work.

Michael Bross: I have a lot of ideas outside of my scoring work that I like to explore. My main interest has been in the ever-widening and fragmenting genre of electronic music. My last album release, in 2009, was “Subway Meditations”. It was mostly in the ambient vein. Some of the source material from that album I captured while riding the subways here in Los Angeles but also from the trains in San Francisco. I have a number of other album releases before that exploring other facets of electronic music.

Looking forward, I have some new material that I’ve been planning to release. I have almost an album’s worth of glitch / lo-fi inspired material. I’ve also been sitting on a number of other tracks I completed 2 years ago. I guess they could be considered a foray into the realm of slower tempo with experimentations in sound design. I use my voice on a few of these tracks, but closer along the lines of wordless vocals. The tracks are finished but I have to find time to master them and get them distributed. Really, I’m hoping to do that soon.

Retroplayer: What composers/music artists would you say have inspired you over the course of your career.

Michael Bross: I could list a notebook full of inspiring artists. To mention a few here: Brian Eno, Miles Davis, Jon Hassell, Chopin, Philip Glass, James Newton Howard, Howard Shore, Hans Zimmer, Marilyn Manson. I also like some of the material coming out of the Ghostly International label.

Retroplayer: How do you view the current state of the games industry as opposed to when you first entered it?

Michael Bross: Back then it was much smaller and a niche market with a small audience enjoying the games. A developer could sell 80,000 copies through a publisher and it would be considered a huge success. Now, if one of the big publishers doesn’t sell over 1 million copies on some of their more visible titles, they consider it a failure, which us unfortunate. Luckily, due to the growth of digital distribution and the power it brings in connecting game creators directly with an audience, the industry is going through a period of flux again. It’s an exciting time for creators, because it brings that “garage spirit” back to games, which is where much innovation can take place.

From a music standpoint, it’s easier to be expressive now than it was in the past. There were too many technical limitations to creating music back then for the medium. Many of those obstacles are gone now.

Retroplayer: Are you a gamer yourself? If so, what do you enjoy?

Michael Bross: I’m a gamer, but because of my wicked crazy schedule, I don’t always get to play as much as I like. Sometimes when I’m in a production crunch, I won’t get a chance to play anything for 3-4 months. It’s hard to do anything else when working 14-15 hours a day, 7 days a week.

With that said, recently I’ve been playing the XBLA-released game, “Limbo”. I really eat up the vibe of this game and would love to work with the people who made it. It has incredibly moody and atmospheric. Also very cool is “Machinarium”. I’m still playing through Red Dead Redemption.

Retroplayer: What’s next for you, Michael?

Michael Bross: I’m working on the next instalment of Insomniac’s Ratchet and Clank series (Ratchet and Clank: All 4 One). It’s an exciting project. Very exciting! The game’s release is slated for the Fall of 2011. As mentioned already, I also hope to release some new material I’ve been working on.

Including that and beyond, let’s hope what’s next is a glorious future of creating great music. I know I’ll always be working hard towards that goal.