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Interview Editor: Jason MacIsaac

20 (/2) Questions with Matt Uelmen

Interview by Dan Studnicky

Matt Uelmen
Matt Uelmen

Our pals at The Mushroom scored an interview with Matt Uelmen, music composer behind Diablo and Diablo II. However, due to Mr. Uelmen's extremely busy schedule, they decided to skip right to the nitty-gritty and ask the "professional" questions, making this The Mushroom's very first 20/2Q.

Q: What was your big break and how did you get it?

Matt Uelmen: My "big break" came from making a tape using the same technical specs as the Sega Genesis, and personally taking it to the offices of every publisher in the Bay Area mentioned in a Nintendo document, which somehow came into my possession. One of those companies was DTMC, which was employing Matt Householder at the time. Matt, currently working as a producer here, pointed me in the direction of what was Condor at the time, later to become Blizzard North. I knew instantly that Condor was where I wanted to work, and bugged them with dogged persistence for a solid four months before I was hired.

Q: You have some variety in your musical portfolio. Your first work with Justice League Task Force and the more recent Diablo II are such different games. How difficult is it to write between genres?

MU: I actually would have liked to have had more opportunities to have worked in other genres in the past few years, but I have tried my best to jam as many influences as possible into the Diablo universe. I like nothing more than forcing together stylistic opposites into the same piece of music, if only because it is hard to not write something original in the process. I think the difficulty of working in any particular genre is directly related to how much you love it in the first place. I have played in live projects, which stylistically range from Washington D.C. go-go funk to California avant-surf to lounge piano versions of Tin Pan Alley standards, and tried to learn something from all of these experiences. If you have a real love for the final sound, you will make the right decisions to get there.

Q: Any specific composers that influenced you to become a composer?

MU: I had a steady exposure to orchestral music through my parents as a child, and was studying classical piano from the age of six, but I did not really make the connection between the piano lessons I had been taking and the popular music I was discovering until I was 13. Trying to plunk through arrangements of the rock stuff I loved, like the Police and Prince, was what really motivated me to think about the structure behind these tunes. Liszt and Debussy were some of my favorites in my high school years, while American giants like Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix and Tom Waits also figured largely as I grew to appreciate the depth and diversity of the music world.

New Diablo II character class, The Assassin, in action.

Q: What kind of education do you have? If you went to college, did you go with the intention of studying music, or did you just someday decide that music making was your thing?

MU: From age 6 to 13, I took weekly piano lessons from a very patient and talented musical educator in Los Angeles named Lenee Bilski. She had the ideal approach to a student like myself, letting me discover things on my own while giving me a good basis in theory and technique. Though she never pushed me to the point of making music seem like a chore, she gave me a quality weekly workout of scales and theory which has provided the basis for my musicianship since. Most of the rest of my education has been though discovery on my own, with a few guitar and jazz piano lessons here and there. I would have liked to have taken a real counterpoint course in college, but the music department at my university was almost nonexistent. In my college years, spending hours in front of the "real book" playing through jazz standards taught me more than any other experience. Those Gershwin and Richard Rodgers classics are excellent studies in making a compact, effective melodic statement. Playing keyboards in a six-piece bar band also provided a good experience in arrangement, interaction and economy.

Q: Diablo II: Lord of Destruction will take place in the Barbarian Highlands. Will the music have some type of barbarian influence, and if so where would you draw that style from?

MU: When the word "Barbarian" is mentioned, the obvious reference of Basil Pouledouris' amazing scores to the Conan movies has to come to mind. I recently recorded some tracks with Kirk Trevor and the Slovakian Radio Symphony Orchestra in Bratislava, and heard more Wagner than anything else in the influences, which seemed immediately apparent. If anything, I will be trying to do something closer to the Wagner/Orff traditional fantasy style than I have done in the past.

Q: Everyone has a favorite game genre, what's yours? If you were to write music for that genre, what features and techniques would you use?

MU: My favorite game of late is actually FIFA for the PS2. They do an excellent job of adapting licensed tracks for the select screens and post-goal celebrations. Of course, underscoring is not really appropriate for sports titles. The two styles I would most like to work in now, both of which are light years away from RPG doom-and-gloom and sports game techno-funk, would be my own take on the "western" sounds like those used in the classic Morricone/Leone/Eastwood films, and a take on the jazz noir textures like those used in Goldsmith's classic score for Chinatown. After doing so much work with a heavy orchestral sound and the sampled potpourri of Asian instrumentation in the past few years, what I would like more than anything is to explore the Americana that comes through in such instruments as pedal steel, vibraphone and sax.

Q: Most of your recording is done in a Windows environment. It seems that most musicians prefer a Macintosh for music production. What software do you use, why do you like Windows for this, and what advantages and disadvantages does this have compared to the Mac?

MU: My main programs are currently Gigasampler and Sonic Foundry's Vegas and Sound Forge. Windows has been my platform largely because it is the dominant one in our development environment and has hence been an easier fit in terms of tech support, file-sharing, etc.

Concept art for Baal's Minions.
Q: What type of musical techniques would you like to incorporate in future endeavors? Was that 12-tone row I heard in the Sanctuary?

MU: Impressive, young Jedi...Yup. Guilty as charged. If and when I work with an orchestra in the future, there are a variety of basic techniques which badly need some polishing in my orchestration--there is nothing like hearing the real thing to remind you of your shortcomings. If anything, I hope to improve my basic skills in voicing and harmonization--the dissonant stuff is actually much easier than the traditional stuff.

Q: There's a Diablo II page on, a Matt Uelmen page on Audiogalaxy, and the MP3 of the Week feature on Blizzard's website. It looks as though you're getting your music out there and into people's faces. What has the reaction been so far? Who, if anyone, would you like to work with in composing music?

MU: We had a healthy number of downloads for the MP3 series, officially a bit under a million, unofficially a bit higher, and I was quite happy with the way the series was presented. Our promotional and web teams do an excellent job. The audience for Diablo II is probably roughly the same audience which loves MP3 sharing, so it seemed like an ideal situation to share the soundtrack in this way. After taking our time in making the game, I also thought it was a nice thank-you to some of the players who felt like they had been waiting forever to see it up on the shelves. I am quite happy at Blizzard, and have no immediate plans for new collaborations, but I would like to work with a real wordsmith/librettist at some point, if only to have the experience. If Tim Rice had something lined up, maybe I would give him a few minutes to sell me on a project.

Q: Finally, what's the most important advice for young composers who want to get into the industry?

MU: Two things--One, what you are selling is a commodity like any other commodity, and should be thought of as such. Being treated fairly on a business level is important, and if you don't have this relationship clearly defined by all parties, the resentment which results can be worse than not having had a break in the first place. Second, if there is a gig you want, be persistent to the point of a getting a restraining order put on you. Wear them down. Good gigs are competitive by nature, and you don't get them by waiting by the phone.

Thanks to The Mushroom for providing this interview and to Matt Uelmen for being cool enough to do it.



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