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Inon Zur: Videogame Music Composer

Chances are you have heard his work, even if his name is unfamiliar. Music composer Inon Zur has worked in a variety of mediums, but is gaining fame through his compositions for videogames. His game composing credits include: Star Trek: Klingon Academy, StarFleet Command 2, Fallout Tactics and Icewind Dale II, all for Interplay, as well as Baldur's Gate for Bioware and a shared credit on the just-released Run Like Hell (also from Interplay).

GameDaily talked to Zur to find out a little bit more about the process of making music for videogames.

Zur explained that he was fortunate to grow up with music, as his parents used to listen to classical music constantly, "I was nurtured on traditional music and began to love it."

"Music soon became the center of my being," he added, noting that when he was young and playing the piano, his teachers used to get angry at him for writing his own music instead of playing what was put in front of him.

While all the other kids in his neighborhood in Israel (where Zur was born) were outside playing, Zur was inside practicing on the piano. After his required four-year stint in the Israeli army (rising to an officer in the tank corps.) Zur attended the Academy of Music at Tel Aviv for a couple of months before realizing it was not the course of action he wanted to take. Following friends advice that Los Angeles was the place to be for a career in music, he moved there in 1991.

Zur started off scoring movies, receiving a break when one student film he scored (Yellow Lotus), received critical accolades and gained him some notoriety.

That led to a gig at Fox Family channel for six years, where he composed music for over 300 episodes of various shows, including Power Rangers, Digimon and State of Grace.

In 1998, Zur was approached asked if he wanted to try something different. Respondin affirmatively, he ended up composing and conducting the music for Interplay's Star Trek: Klingon Academy. Thus a career in scoring for interactive games began, an occupation Zur finds "very rewarding and challenging." Zur thinks that gamers appreciate good music in games even more than moviegoers do, "They really care about the music in games." He reasoned that, "Because you hear it over and over again (music in games) if it's bad you will really grow to hate it, but if it is good, you will grow to love it." Zur added that he receives a lot of fan mail from those who admire his in-game music.

Zur shed some light on the how the creative process begins for him. "For every game I have a preliminary meeting with producers and get their insight on the game," he stated. "Then, I try and play the game a little, but usually the game is far from done. If there is a similar game or previous title in the series, I will pick it up and play it to get a feel for the mood and type of game it is."

Zur approaches game scoring from both an artistic and technical point of view, to see the way the music will be used in the game. If they are going to chop the music, or choose to play a whole piece, the music has to be written a certain way.

Usually time constraints for composing require about three weeks turnaround time, with another week or so added for production and mixing

"Like movies and television, since you are almost last in the chain of production, by the time they get to you publishers and developers don't have any time or money," Zur stated. "We (composers) never have the luxury of plenty of time or money—they finish their budget and are running low on time and want to release the game as soon as possible."

Broadband Internet connections and powerful computers have made Zur's profession much simpler, "Today it's so easy. I'm writing here (at home), and rough cuts can be trasnported almost instantly to the game studio thanks to the Internet." Zur uses .asf files which his employers can download—or even stream—to listen to his work.

Zur's home studio is mainly powered by two GIGA samplers, which he dubbed the "last word" in music equipment. They are actually a pair of very powerful PCs, which act like samplers and play straight from the hard drive, eliminating the musician's worst fear of running low on RAM. The extremely efficient setup allows him to load as many samples as he wants.

Zur still prefers good old-fashioned live musicians when his budget can support it. "Musicians know they have a big enemy called midi, which always sounds perfect, " he stated. While Zur could mimic a full symphony in his studio, he feels that even non-musicians can notice the difference between a synthesized orchestra and a real one.

Zur used the Seattle Symphony to record music for Star Trek: Klingon Acdemy, Star Trek: Empire at War, and Baldur's Gate.

Zur writes the score, has his orchestrator break it down to individual instruments and then puts the music in front of the orchestra. Touting the professionalism of the Seattle group, Zur said, "Musicians today know that time is money. If the arrangement is medium hard, it might take one or two takes, if it's a real hard one it could take three to four takes." Easy arrangements are usually nailed on the initial try. With a fee of around $24,000 per eight hours of use, time really is money with the Seattle Symphony.

GameDaily asked Zur if game developers ever try to pressure him out of using a full symphony in order to save a couple bucks. He responded, "They always try to save some money, but on the other end, people like Adam Levenson (a sound and music supervisor at Interplay) is very aware of the pluses of a real orchestra. So he will always fight to get me my budget. That is why Interplay as a publisher has always had great soundtracks."

Icewind Dale II had a little lower budget for its score, so instead of using the Seattle Symphony, Zur used a scaled down orchestra in Los Angeles, but doubled the instruments up in production in order to project the effect of a huge orchestra.

Zur estimates that the average game he works on has about 35-45 minutes of music. Run Like Hell, since it was involved and a long game had about 60 minutes of music.

Despite the fact that most of his work is done for Interplay, Zur is not under specific contract with them. "Interplay just happens to know me very well," he added, noting that he is independent and is open to taking projects as they come. In fact, he just finished working on a pair of European games: Crusader Kings for Paradox Entertainment and War and Peace for Microids.

"I think that there are enough great game composers and organizations that I believe we could gain respect much like film composers," Zur responded, when asked about the future of videogame music makers. Zur also mentioned that organizations like the recently formed Game Audio Network Guild (headed by Tommy Tallarico), could help flesh out more budding composers.

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