08/06/2008 10:15:05 AM

To celebrate the release of the Age of Conan soundtrack (now available on iTunes), we are pleased to present this interview with our composer, Knut Avenstroup Haugen, covering the entire process of putting together the soundtrack, his background, and what goes into all of the exciting tracks you hear in the world of Hyboria.

What is your name and what do you do for Age of Conan?

My name is Knut Avenstroup Haugen and I create all the music in the game.

What is your musical background? Outside of Age of Conan, where would we have seen your work?

I started out studying the piano. I went to conservatories in Norway and in the Netherlands for a total of six years before I decided that what I really wanted to do was to write music. I studied a little bit of composition and arranging during my piano studies, but I really needed to learn more, so I went on to study composition and musicology for three years at the University of Oslo.

Some Norwegians have heard my music, since I’ve done mainly live performances. I’ve written orchestral music, chamber music and a musical among other things. My last concert was at the Oslo Opera Festival. I was festival composer and they had commissioned a piece for large orchestra, mixed choir and singer. While I was doing Conan I also did a children’s game for another Norwegian developer, but it’s not out yet.

How did you get involved with Funcom and the Age of Conan project?

I got to know Morten Sørlie through a friend of mine. Morten has been a composer for Funcom for many years. He had heard some of the things that I’d done and told me that they were looking for a composer for a new project. He said I should send a demo – which I did of course. I had to compete with a lot of other applicants, but I was lucky and got the job.

What’s the process like for writing music for something like this? Do they just come to you and say “We need cool fight music” or do they say “We need 30 seconds that sound like this”?

I started this project more than 3 years ago. At the time no visuals in the game were finished, so I got all my information from design documents, concept art and the game director. I also read all the Howard stories. After that I sat down with the game director and the audio director to talk about what would be appropriate for the score as a whole. We very quickly agreed upon an overall approach to the game’s music.

When it comes to single pieces, we talk about the basic idea for the piece: Is it ambient music or combat music? Where is it going to be used in the game? What is the feeling we’re after, how long will it need to be etc. After that I start working. When I present the first sketch of the piece, we discuss it and decide whether it is OK, if it needs more work or perhaps a different approach. We have a very similar understanding of what will work and what will not, so most of the time, I only have to do small changes at this point. After that I record the live instruments and mix the track.

What do you look to for inspiration? What makes a piece of “Age of Conan” music?

My inspiration comes from a lot of places. A good piece of music or a movie with a good score inspires me. It gives me new ideas and makes me want to be a better composer. Working with and learning from live musicians is a huge inspiration booster. Getting new sound libraries opens up new possibilities and fills me with a lot of new ideas. Learning new compositional techniques or production methods makes you think in new ways and is also very inspirational.
As a general rule, I think the most important aspect of a piece of Age of Conan music, is that it should not sound too sophisticated or complex. The harmonic progressions, melodies and rhythms should be well defined and easy to grasp. It should sound ancient, primeval and natural. The instruments, scales, harmonic progressions and rhythmic elements in the score have all been carefully selected with this in mind. At the same time it’s very important that you use a musical language that the listener understands and that is rich enough to be able to convey all the emotional nuances needed for the different parts of the game.

The world of Age of Conan is so varied. There are a lot of very different cultures, landscapes and moods in the game and the music has to reflect and underline all these differences. So typical Age of Conan music can be many different things: it can be dark and sinister, alarming and dangerous, sexy and seducing or lush and beautiful. The music varies in style and expression as well as in scope. You will find everything from simple folk music pieces to large orchestral works.

Likewise, even within the game, what would be the difference between, say, Stygian music and Cimmerian music?

Even though there’s an overall “Hyborian sound” that is clearly noticeable throughout the game, the style of the music from the different cultures within the game are very different from each other. The music for some of the cultures in the game is inspired by traditional music from different cultures in the real world. Each culture also has specific instruments and one or more recurring musical themes that are closely connected to it. Of course there are music pieces in these cultures that are exceptions from these general description, but the following are the basic ideas for the music of each of the main cultures: The music for Tortage is a bit influenced by Spanish music and uses the classical guitar quite extensively. The music for lowland Cimmeria is inspired by Celtic musical traditions and the solo violin is the main instrument here. In the Cimmerian highlands and the Eiglophian Mountains, the Norse and Nordic influences are strong and Helene Bøksles voice represents a kind of mountain spirit – much like Atali of Conan lore. The music for Aquilonia is more generic in character. It’s not as influenced by folk music because I wanted it to sound more civilized and more majestic. The main instrument here is the orchestra basically, but I use instruments that originate from military use specifically, like brass and drums, to represent the importance of warfare in this kingdom. Stygian music is strongly influenced by Arabic music and I use Arabic voices and instruments extensively. The music here is often very somber, dark and ritualistic, but can be really beautiful as well. The music for everything connected to Acheronean culture, is demonic and evil and at times otherworldly while Atlantean music is the opposite: It is uplifting and magical in a positive way.

Is there anything that was particularly difficult or tricky to put together? Likewise, do you have a favorite piece?

The most difficult thing or I should say laborious aspect of this soundtrack, was the mixing process where I combine live and sampled instruments: I use a technique were I for instance blend a sampled string section with a live violin. This means I have to make the fake string section sound as good as possible – which takes a very long time – and at the same time prepare a score for the violinist, record him and implement the recording into the mix. It’s difficult and time consuming to match the live and fake violins, but it’s worth it: The result sounds a lot more realistic and organic than sampled strings alone. Some places I don’t think anyone will be able to tell that I’ve used mostly fake strings. The choir recordings are multi-tracked with three different mic positions and layered up to four times. This quickly turns into a lot of tracks that have to be automated to match relative volume settings in the sampled orchestra. So for these reasons, the big orchestra and choir pieces – like some of the combat cues – was the most difficult by far.

I don’t have a favorite piece, actually. I like many of them very much. In some pieces I think the melody is really inspired or that a soloist performs beautifully. In others I like the harmonic progressions or the rhythm. Sometimes I like a piece because I find that the overall feeling of it is very right or just because I’m very pleased with it production-wise.

One of the biggest questions we hear when the music goes out is “Who is that female singer?” So, who is Helene Bøksle? How did you find her? Where could curious players/fans find more of her?

Helene is a well known Norwegian folk/pop singer. Helenes voice is closely connected to the Eiglophian Mountains and the Vanir. This area is very Nordic looking and my approach to the music for this area was to make it as Norwegian- or Norse-sounding as possible. From very early on in this project I knew I wanted to use Helene for this. She has the most pristine and Norwegian-sounding voice I have ever heard, so I basically had no other candidate. I phoned her and asked if she would be interested and luckily she said yes. At the time, she really had no idea of what she was getting into and was a bit apprehensive I think, but she was convinced by some friends and ended up doing it. She says she’s very happy with her decision now. And so am I: This is a perfect example of how astonishing the result can be when you write music for one particular person and this person is the perfect performer for this particular piece of music. The six songs that she performs in the game would not have been what they are today with an

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