The Path of the Game Composer: An Interview with Bobby Tahouri

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During the SoundTrack_Cologne festival in late August, we had the honor of speaking with Bobby Tahouri. His work includes some of the last decade’s biggest games such as Rise of the Tomb Raider (2015) or Transformers: Rise of the Dark Spark. Tahouri has also contributed additional music for Medal of Honor: Warfighter (2012), Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009) and Game of ThronesDespicable me 2 (2013) and Clash of the Titans (2010).

When did you decide that you wanted to make music?

Very young. I started playing piano when I was seven, seven or eight. At first, I thought I’ll be a concert pianist, and then no, I wasn’t good enough. Then music for films. I really noticed music in films, and then I thought I want to be a composer. I want to do that. I didn’t know how, but my parents were very encouraging, and they paid for music lessons, composition lessons, paid for music school. I think at a very young age I wanted to be involved in music any way I could.

Then I went to school — I went to San Francisco Conservatory of Music and studied composition. Then I went to another school called California Institute of the Arts. I Graduated, and then I wondered: what now? I played in bands for a little bit, kind of goofed off in my 20s, all the while knowing that eventually, I’ll figure out a way to get into the career of music.

Back then, I didn’t know how to get involved in film music. I would write for student films and try to meet young directors, and I did that for a while. Then eventually, I started assisting other composers, and that helped. That led to writing additional music for them, and then eventually just meeting more and more people and getting the music out there, that kind of paved the way for me to get a game like Raise of the Tomb Raider.

Basically, I happened to meet a person who worked in the audio department at Crystal Dynamics, who wanted to hear my music. A friend of a friend. He knew I was a composer so they said, “Oh, do you have a Sound Cloud link?” And I said, “Yeah,” and I sent him a bunch of my demos and pieces of music that I had written for projects and that’s basically how I got the job. That allowed me to get through the door, it allowed me to demo for it.

Can you tell me a bit more about what studying music is like? You said you were on the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Can you tell me about the course and the classes for example, what it’s like?

I really liked San Francisco Conservatory. There was one teacher there, David Garner, who taught theory back then. Now he teaches composition. He made me really interested and excited about music theory, which a lot of people think is boring, but for some reason his enthusiasm just made me want to learn more. I think it’s all about the teachers to make you enthusiastic about what you’re studying. Yeah, that was a big help, and then transferring to Cal Arts was nice, because I got to see the technology side of music and the recording studios.

There was a focus less on formal education at Cal Arts — on formal theory — and more on technology when I was there, and learning a recording studio, so I got a good balance of both, of classical theory as well as recording techniques, which came in handy learning sequencers, learning different music software. Yeah, both schools were great in that regard. I learned a lot.

Bobby Tahouri at the annual Sound_Track Cologne in Cologne, Germany.

If you study music do you really sit in the composing studio?  How does it work for someone who has no idea about studying composing? Of course, there is a theory side, I guess, but this is also a very practical profession. You have to train, right?

I think it’s good to learn the theory and get the foundations, and then you can learn how to break the rules later if you want to. I don’t think you have to be trained in music to be a composer at all. Anyone, if they have a melody in their head can just sing it, or figure out a way to get people to play it, hopefully.

I think it’s important though to learn about the software, the computer side, and getting your ideas into a computer now, because that’s the only way you’re going to do it these days. You can still write with pen and paper, but that’s mostly just for concert music. We’re talking about music for games, film, TV; you need to be able to create mock-ups, and get the latest sample libraries, and use all those tools and learn them in order to get your ideas out.

After you graduated, you said you first, you were in a band so you decided to —

Try to be a rock star.

Although you wanted to be a composer, you also wanted to do this?

Yeah, I thought, composing is something I’ll do when I’m 30. For some reason I just thought I can wait, and I wanted to experience life, and travel, and play in bands, and just not take it seriously.

What bands were you in? What kind of music did you play?

I played in a very interesting band. We did industrial rock — industrial, electronic rock. Then we didn’t actually, we played various concerts with dancers and choreographed pieces behind us, with aerialists, and kind of like rock opera in a way. It was very interesting. We did that a lot. Gosh, yeah, in my early 20s we just focused on trying to get gigs doing that, which was a lot of fun.

Still around California?

Yes, California. We would go to different places, we went to the Formula One race in Indianapolis one year and performed there for a Red Bull party, which was fun. But I knew that it couldn’t last forever. In the back of my mind I wanted to focus on film and TV and game music. Yeah, it didn’t really take off. We would get gigs here and there, but there wasn’t really a market. You couldn’t pay the rent by doing that type of music and performing in that type of show. I focused on getting back to what I always wanted to do, which is write the music for media.

How did you find your first job?

What I did was I reached out to Remote Control Productions, at Hans Zimmer’s studio, and I reached out a composer by the name of Geoff Zanelli (composer of Pirates of the Carribean: Dead Men Tell No Tales). I just randomly picked his name. I saw a list and I liked the sound of that name, and I just called him.

You just called someone?

I think I emailed or called, I don’t remember. I said, “Hey, I’m a composer, I’m looking for an assistant job. Do you happen to be hiring?” And he said, “At the moment, no, but send me your resume. Maybe I will in the future.” Then only a month later he reached out and said, “I’m getting busy. Come on over. Let’s meet.”

Without having heard your music?

Yeah, because it doesn’t really matter. You have to be a hard working assistant and a hard working person. I think they don’t care about whether you’re talented or not.

Well, you need to be talented at being a good assistant and helping them in their career, first and foremost. I think they assume you’re a composer, you’re reaching out, so maybe you can write music, whether you’re talented or not, who knows? I think what’s most important is that the composer is looking for an assistant who can help them, whether that’s getting coffee, food, or fix their computer.

As an assistant, you did these types of things?

Yes. I got coffee, I got food, I learned about the computers that Geoff was using and tried to fix them. You try to make the composer you work for very comfortable and not have to worry about things. If the computer crashes, you have to fix it. Things like that.

When you’re an assistant to a composer, do you also learn anything?

Yes. Luckily when I worked with Geoff he was very open, and let me sit in the back of the room and just watch him work. You learn by watching and you sit in meetings with directors, and you learn the dynamics, and how that works, the relationships between the director and a composer. The approval process, what a director does or doesn’t like, and how that composer solves the problem. It’s a great learning experience.

I worked for him for three years, and then he got really busy and I started writing music for him. First I started programming sounds, drum sounds, and arranging his music. Then I started writing additional music for whatever projects he was working on. Then I eventually got my own room at Remote Control, and started getting my own jobs just through word of mouth, and friends who were filmmakers that I met. Random things here and there.

Do you remember what your first job was a composer?

Well, the first film, the first paying job, was a film called “Escutcheon Conspiracy,” which I think it was on Netflix recently. I don’t know if it’s still on Netflix, but that was my first job and that was lot of fun. Big action thriller.

How did you approach the composing for this film? You had your own room now, and you saw the film and then you started writing?

I started talking to the director, we spotted the film, which means you sit with the director and decide where music should and shouldn’t go. Then you come up with themes, different characters, or situations, and go from there, and start writing and hopefully they like your music. I think the director liked my music for that film. It was a lot of fun, and that was a good experience.

Was there something special you learned and you took from this film, this job?

I think I learned how to be very quick. We had a fast deadline, a very short deadline, so I had to not second guess and trust my instincts, and that’s something I did for each project I worked on — try to trust my instincts and get quicker and better at writing, whether that means coming up with the melody or themes and implementing them, and just making sure that I get my ideas down fast and efficiently.

What do you think a young composer should do to become a successful composer?

A good work ethic and no ego, because you’re going to be rejected many times. Many, many, many times. Even when you get hired on a project, whoever you’re working for is going to ask you to rewrite something, probably, and not to be too attached to whatever you’re writing, because you’re writing for another person, basically. You’re writing for the game developer, or director, whoever. You have to make sure your music compliments whatever you’re working on. Just to work hard in that, and try to removed your ego and not be hurt or insulted by notes.

Have you seen a lot of these notes?

Yes! People are going to say “this is crap,” or they’re going to say “this is great, this is amazing, you’re the best composer ever.” You’re going to get both sides probably.

The communication between directors and composers sounds a bit rough.

I think it depends on the director. Am I making it sound like it’s rough to be a composer?

A bit.

Oh, no!

People don’t normally say “this is crap.” They’ll say it in a nicer way. No, what I’m saying is, you just have to realize that you’re writing music for someone else. If you want to write music for yourself then you can write concert music, or put out an album of just music, and there you go. To be a team player basically, and realize that you’re one part of a whole project, like a video game. Music is just one part. There’s writers, the artists, the audio department. There are so many people involved in creating a game or a film that it just feels good to be a part of a big project, and it’s good to be reminded that you should kind of lose your ego and not take things personally, if you’re given notes. There were some projects I worked on where I’ve written music and almost everything is approved and it’s great, and others are a little rockier, it takes longer. I think at the end of the day you just have to work hard.

That means that as an aspiring composer, you should have a good work ethic, no ego, and be a team player? For some people it might be a bit difficult as composing is mostly something you do alone, and then on the other side, you have to be a team player.

Yes, it’s difficult. I always get nervous when I’m writing something and then I present it to someone for the first time. What do they think? Will they like it? I think you have to get over that if you’re going to write music for media, because you’ve already decided that you are going to be a part of a bigger project that involves many people. You’re just one part of the process.

You have also scored a few good games.

Yeah. The Rise of the Tomb Raider is the biggest one. It was something I knew, something I’ve played before, so I was very honoured when I was asked to work on this.

You just got a call?

Yeah, I was asked to do a demo. So I demoed for it, send it, and I got it. It was very exciting.

The first time you presented some of your music for the game to the developers,  you must have been a bit nervous.

Very nervous, yeah. Especially with a huge game like Tomb Raider, oh, my gosh.

Are there any current games you are working on?

Yes.

Can you tell us which one?

I can’t say.

You can’t say — so it’s a big one?

Yeah. It comes out in a couple years. I think 2019.  It’s completely new. You’ll find out in a couple years, but I’m working on that right now, and it’s very exciting. It’s a lot of fun.

Bobby Tahouri at the annual Sound_Track Cologne in Cologne, Germany.

Do you prefer scoring for games, or for films, or do you like both?

I like it all. I like the variety. I love games because it’s nice, you definitely feel like you’re a team player, especially when you visit the developer and you see how many people are involved in creating a game, it feels good to be a part of a huge team of people working on a game. You get to see that more with games, because usually you’re involved early on.

For Tomb Raider, I was on for two years, so it’s a big commitment, and it feels good. Whereas in films, you’re on it usually at the end, everyone is done and it’s just you and the director, usually, or the producers, and that’s nice too, because you can just focus on creating a great score, and just deal with the director, which is great.

Then TV shows are good too. They’re all good. I like the variety of it. I just like writing music. It’s good to have a variety I think.

What’s nice about games is that you get to write a lot of music, and a lot of different options, and you get to be very creative. At least in my experience, where they give you freedom to try things without giving you much direction. To me sometimes the craziest ideas work, but I think for Tomb Raider I wrote a wide variety of music and used many different instruments, and somehow they all worked, with orchestral instruments, bowed metal, various ethnic instruments, plucked instruments, instruments that I bowed in my studio.

I have this one instrument that I bought in Thailand that I blow into, and that became the sound of when someone gets killed. The audio directors, they’re responsible for using that, they thought that sounds cool. “Let’s use that sound for when someone gets killed.” I think it’s nice when you work on games you have all these options to go left or right, the thrill of what’s going to happen, but I think as a composer it’s your job to cover that and make sure you write all types of music for situation that could potentially happen in a game.

That’s the one thing I like about the finished product of a game, is that when you play it you think, “Oh, wow, this is cool.” I decided to go here and this music plays, or this sound plays. You forget that you worked hard on creating all those options and making those possibilities happen early on. I guess that’s why it takes a long time to work on a game, because you need enough time to provide all those options.

How do you define if something doesn’t work? Is it just something that feels strange to you? 

Usually when they say, “Bobby, this sounds horrible. Change it.” I just trust my instincts and see what’s right. I respond visually. That’s why it’s nice to get gameplay footage and watch, and go, “Okay, what would I do here?” You just know it when it’s right. Sometimes I’m wrong, sometimes it’s a matter of taste. Some people like choir, other people don’t, so if I feel like a scene needs choir to add more mystery, I’m thinking, “Oh, this is great,” and then send it to the company and they come back and say, “No, we don’t want choir. We don’t want that.” Okay. That’s valid. I figure out another instrument to replace that.

I like to just respond viscerally to whatever I’m watching, and see what happens.

Lastly, do you have any advice for young composers just starting out? Or for people who love music, thinking about studying composing? What would you say to them?

Nowadays it’s so easy to get your music out there on the internet, but it also means there is so much to choose from, so much noise that if you want try to get involved composing, whether it’s for games, TV, or whatever, just write music, work hard, get better at your craft. A lot of it is luck. Well, a lot of it has to do with luck, and I met the audio director at Crystal Dynamics through a friend, who happened to know him. He happened to be looking for a composer at the time so it just worked out. Because I worked hard and I tried to hone my craft as best I could I was prepared when that opportunity came.

Work hard, try to get better at what you’re doing, write music, write music, write music, and try to reach out and find people who are looking for composers. I think conventions are a great way, they’re a great place to meet people.  Just let luck and serendipity happen. You never know.

There are plenty of talented people who can’t, for whatever reason, get work, but then there’s plenty of people who are not talented who are getting work too. It’s just about timing. But one concept is that you have to just continue to work hard, and write music, and try to get better.

Try to go where the work is. If that means moving to California, then you maybe have to do that. I don’t know. It’s tough, but it’s worth it.


Speaking with Bobby Tahouri at SoundTrack_Cologne 2017 was a great pleasure. If you haven’t had the opportunity to play one of his games or listen to his music yet, be sure to check out his work on Deezer and iTunes!

And if you want to hear more about game composers, stay tuned — we have a few more interviews coming!

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Sarah
Contributor
Actor, writer, and aspiring journalist. Promoter of equality in any form and contributor for Obilisik.

Diploma in Drama, followed by a Bachelor's Degree in Romance Philology/ French Studies and Japanese Studies.

Hobbies (so far): Screenwriting, gaming, baking, drawing, traveling, anything related to Japan and, of course, eating & sleeping.

Potterhead and Pokéfreak.

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