JEEHUN HWANG: Composing Music For Videogames

Interview | Composer

Published in SOS November 1998
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People + Opinion : Artists / Engineers / Producers / Programmers



His music for the futuristic shoot-'em-up Mech Warrior 2 earned him cult status and a heap of 'Best Music' accolades from computer magazines. Now Bruce Willis stars in his latest project. Sam Molineaux loads her tape machine and hunts out Jeehun Hwang in the City of Angels.

It was by some strange and eerie LA-style coincidence, some may call it fate, that on my last trip to the city of angelic intervention I wound up at the 360 rooftop bar on the corner of Sunset and Vine, a frequent hangout and part-investment of Jeehun Hwang, the guy I would be interviewing a week or so later. Unknown to me at the time, his empire Doxon Entertainment -- a music production company, talent management, entertainment consultants, model agency, nightclub and most recently a film production company -- was just 10 floors below where I was sipping daiquiris with my buddies.

We were discussing the alternative rock singer-songwriter Poe, whose studio one of my drinking pals had recently wired. Poe had been involved in the production of a new video game alongside Bruce Willis and a certain young composer, already something of a legend in video game circles. Mindful of the recent rise in popularity of video game music, I made a mental note to find out who this composer was. A few days after my barhopping escapade, I was amazed to discover he'd been right there under my nose.

Jeehun Hwang (known simply as Jeehun), composer, entrepreneur and 26-year-old head honcho of Doxon, was the guy responsible for the music for Activision's classic Mech Warrior 2 video game. Named Best Game of the Year on its release three years ago, and still one of the biggest-selling games around, it heralded a new standard in video game music with its atmospheric and highly unconventional score. A figure of discussion within many an Internet newsgroup, Jeehun has since scored more than 15 Activision titles. These include the Mech Warrior 2 expansion packs Ghost Bear's Legacy and Mercenaries, which were equally as successful as the original, the espionage game Spycraft, and the recently released Dark Reign, a futuristic war game in the vein of Mech Warrior 2. Also under his belt is the forthcoming Apocalypse starring Bruce Willis -- which has already earned its place in history as the first ever original game to feature a Hollywood A-listed actor.

  Kurzweil K2500 (two)
"I use one K2500 as my controller keyboard and I have an additional rackmount K2500. I use those to control my sound library of real orchestral sounds."
Akai S2000
Roland JV1080
"I use this with the orchestra expansion card for some of the orchestral sounds that are mostly in the background -- in other words those that don't require so much authenticity. It allows me to layer up sounds without having to use up any of the memory I need for my better CD-ROM orchestral samples."
Studio Electronics ATC1
"This one I use when there's a need for analogue sounds. You can switch from one type of sound to another depending on what cartridge you put in."
Roland Juno 106
"I used the Juno 106 for Mercenaries and a bunch of other titles that needed more industrial types of sounds."
Tech 21 SansAmp PSA1
"This is great for recording guitar sounds. It has a whole bunch of different guitar distortions and effects and plugs straight into the board -- you don't have to go through a separate amplifier, but it creates the sound just as well."
Alesis ADAT XT
"Occasionally when I have all the samplers filled up and I don't have any more memory I dump them on to different tracks on the ADAT and record them that way."
Tascam DA30 DAT recorder
JVC Pro Series Digital S video deck
"I use this half-inch deck to sync up films and timecode."
Apple Power Mac 4400 running MOTU's Digital Performer
"I've been trying various different sequencers to see which one I like the best and, although they all have their pros and cons, I find that Digital Performer works really well for what I'm doing."
Digidesign Pro Tools
"I don't use Pro Tools that much. Sometimes I will if I need to sync up different dialogue and sound effects to the music, but mostly I do the final mix onto DAT and if necessary I'll load that back into Pro Tools to burn CDs."
With Jeehun's exclusive contract with Activision recently expired, rival game companies are now clamouring to sign him up for their new projects. But Jeehun's casting a discerning eye over the offers. As I discovered, he's got plenty of tricks up his sleeve yet.

Starting Out

Korean by birth, Jeehun moved to America with his family in 1987, attending high school in New Jersey, then college at California's prestigious Stanford University, before finally settling in Los Angeles in 1994. As a child he'd taught himself classical piano, and by the age of 13, he had a piano of his own and began composing. In high school, he formed a band, with himself on vocals and synthesizer.

"I hadn't been in the States for long and suddenly there were all these record labels interested in signing us up. It was when Debbie Gibson, New Kids On The Block, Tiffany and all these teenage bands were around, and as we were a rock band they wanted to fill that niche," he recalls.

Much to the chagrin of his fellow band members, however, Jeehun turned down the record company offers in favour of a place at Stanford to study politics and psychology. Nevertheless, he continued to perform around San Francisco and the Bay Area as a solo artist. Six months short of graduating, the lure of Los Angeles proved too great. Armed with a Korg M1 and an electric guitar, he moved down to Southern California to try to rekindle the earlier record company interest.

"The first thing I did was sell my keyboard to buy a motorcycle," he laughs. "I needed transport. I had very little cash, so I was dressing up as a Power Ranger and doing children's birthday parties... anything I could to make some money."

Unable to find musicians in LA who shared his vision and matched his (at that time) grunge style, he recorded a solo acoustic album. Describing it as "not quite what he had in mind", he began to search for suitable collaborators. However, money was getting low again.

"I was getting frustrated and it was suggested that I should just get some session musicians to record with, but I really didn't feel like that was going to be representative of what I wanted to do. So I was kind of wavering. Then a friend of mine, the drummer from my previous high school band in New Jersey, who was now working as a programmer at the gam

"Activision were literally flooded with e-mail from people commenting on the music, many saying they'd have bought the game just for the soundtrack."
e company Activision, said I could go over there and use his computer to type up a résumé so I could look for a job... at least until I could figure out what to do with the band."

Like all good job-seekers, Jeehun left a copy of his CV with his friend, in the hope that if something came up there he'd be the first to be considered. "The very next day I got a call from the producer of Mech Warrior 2, the game currently in development that was probably going to be make or break for Activision. They were looking for a production assistant, and when they found out I had a musical background they thought I'd be able to help them with finding a composer. I thought 'Why not? I can still do my music at nights.'"

He took the job, which involved maintaining the systems and network and performing some basic programming. When the time came to find a composer to score the game he helped sift through the submissions to find a suitable candidate.

"The producer had a very distinct idea of what he wanted. It was to be very classical, like an orchestral movie score. It wasn't what I thought the project needed, but that's what he wanted," Jeehun remembers. "We listened to all the tapes and there was only one composer who we thought did orchestral scores well enough, so we signed him on to the project. However, there were problems: the music didn't come over how Activision wanted it, but no-one could convey how they wanted it to change. So finally I said, 'Look, I'll put some songs together for you that I think might work and if you like them you can use them'."

Jeehun admits this was something of a gamble, since at the time he didn't have any equipment to his name (he wound up selling his only possession, a car he'd bought with his first six months' earnings, to buy a new Korg X2 keyboard workstation so he could commence the task) and he'd also never composed for orchestra. "I had never even composed music that didn't have lyrics!" he says. "But I just did what I thought would work, all on the X2's internal sequencer. Mech Warrior 2 is set in the future and is basically about clans fighting each other with hi-tech robotic weapons. I was creating lots of tribal sounding music, but also flavoured with out-of-this-world futuristic sounds. After I'd written a few songs I took them in and there was this big meeting with everyone, including the head of the company, where first they played all the music the other guy had done and then they played my music. To my surprise I got a standing ovation!"

  Video Games - What's The Score?  

Budding video game composers take note. Whereas just a few years ago scoring for video games wasn't such a difficult area to break into, these days standards are high and competition is fierce. To be considered by one of the main video game companies you'll either need a pretty good recommendation or an impressive showreel (preferably both). Talent and experience are obvious prerequisites, but there are certain other essential requirements, as Jeehun explains:

"For the most part, there isn't really a special training you can get -- I'm not aware of any dedicated courses, as such. You do need a lot of equipment and you need to be very familiar with it all. Musicians who are primarily guitar players or real instrument players may have difficulty unless they thoroughly understand sequencers and studio gear.

"Other than the gear you need to actually write the music, you should have a professional video deck and the whole TV setup to check out all the levels of the video game, as well as enough computer technology to be able to link those up so that you can see the images and get a good feel for the different levels. You also need to be able to produce each song in its entirety and mix it down to DAT, because a game company isn't going to take some riff or an idea that's really cool and take it somewhere or make it sound better. You have to be able to finish it and create a product.

"I'd also say that diversity is pretty important. Video games demand that you make the music add to the experience of playing the game and it's rare that a producer will want just a straightforward genre of music. You're often asked to combine, say, an electronic style with orchestral, or heavy metal with classical, so having exposure to a lot of different styles of music, and having had experience writing in many different styles, will help in the long run. That's the same as in any composing career, be it TV, film, radio or whatever. If you can only write one style or a few styles, you're not going to get as much work. Writing for video games is as complex and demanding as writing for film or TV."

Knowing a good thing when they heard it, Activision set Jeehun up with a computer and a small budget for equipment. Using Opcode's Studio Vision sequencing software, the X2 and a new Roland JV1080 with the Orchestral and World expansion cards, he scored the entire game.

"I was literally learning as they were paying me," he remembers. "It was the very first time I'd used a computer sequencer: prior to that, I didn't even know they existed! They also wanted me to score the movies -- the intro and outro -- so I got an old VCR with timecode and pretty much scored everything in real time and then went back over them. It wasn't really the conventional way of doing things and it took a long time, but I worked very hard on it."

His score was unconventional to say the least. Streets ahead of other video game music of the time, it seamlessly blended orchestral and contemporary sounds with elements of both classical music and hip hop.

"I was just trying to be experimental, and as I didn't have any experience writing for orchestra I just built the songs up with the sounds I liked, without adhering to one particular style," he says.

If the music was ahead of its time, so was the game's technology: Mech Warrior 2 was one of the first ever video games with full Red Book audio. Each track is burnt directly on to the CD-ROM as opposed to being coded as MIDI with sound coming from the player's computer soundcard -- the common standard at that time. With a happening soundtrack, superior sound quality and sensational graphics, Mech Warrior 2 was an overnight success.

"It sold millions of copies all around the world, was named Best Game of the Year, and I got Best Music of the Year in a lot of the game publications," reports Jeehun. "Activision were literally flooded with e-mail from people commenting on the music, many saying they'd have bought the game just for the soundtrack."

The Sequel

After the sensational success of Mech Warrior 2, Activision offered Jeehun a multi-project deal, affording him the security of a full-time job along with the freedom to pursue other avenues (namely building up his studio and investing in his own entertainment company). His very next title was Spycraft, an espionage game written by an ex-CIA agent and an ex-KGB director. "They wanted more of a traditional cinematic score for that one, so I had to do a little more research and stick with purely orchestral sounds."

He immersed himself in classical music and film music and, now using an Akai S2000 sampler as his main sound source, set about emulating what he heard using samples, programming each instrument individually to achieve the maximum realism. "I'd build up the songs with the best-sounding orchestral patches I could find, and then blend in electric guitar, industrial sounds and hip-hop beats. That got a lot of attention, since there weren't many people doing that at that time," he says of some of his early projects.

Building on this foundation, subsequent projects have allowed him to develop what has gradually become his trademark -- a fusion of quasi-classical compositional elements with powerful contemporary electronic sounds and rhythms.

Jeehun admits that when he first started he had only a nominal understanding of orchestration and music theory. But as he's progressed, his compositional technique has rapidly become more stylised. "In the beginning I was more concerned with writing catchy melodies, creating cool atmospheric sounds and making the music eccentric -- basically making it sound as good as possible, because I felt intimidated that I didn't have a solid training. But nowadays I have a much clearer idea about how I want a specific piece to sound. I know in advance how I want the parts and the melodies to turn out, although I still do quite a lot of experimentation at the end, just to change the mood slightly or take the music someplace further.

"I always try to write something original," he continues, "but there are only so many notes, and most progressions and melodies have probably appeared somewhere else in one guise or another. One way to compensate for that is to add enough of a different flavour, with unusual arrangements or unconventional instrumentation, and make it original that way."

As well as his Akai sampler, Jeehun now uses two Kurzweil K2500s along with an extensive library of some of the top professional orchestral and choral sample CDs (see Orchestral Manouevres box). But despite his obvious talent for coaxing realistic performances out of samples, his dream, he says, is to conduct a real orchestra.

"The CDs I use are some of the very best available and I use them extensively. Even so, it's not quite the same as a real orchestra. No matter how much the technology advances, you could never get all the detailed expression and intonations that a group of musicians playing together can achieve. Eventually, I hope to conduct real orchestras when I have to do orchestral sounds, but that's something that generally comes with film scoring."

Briefing For The Mission

  The Composer's Legacy  

Jeehun's video games

For Activision
Battle Zone
Blast Chamber
Dark Reign
Fighter Squadron
Grand Tour Racing
Heavy Gear
Interstate 176
Mech Warrior 2
Mech Warrior 2: Ghost Bear's Legacy
Mech Warrior 2: Mercenaries

For ID Software
Quake: Dissolution Of Eternity
Quake: Scourge Of Armagon

For 3DO

Writing for video games, Jeehun insists, is not dissimilar to composing a movie score. Technical considerations are the same and both involve providing a continuous bed for the action without detracting from the main event or getting in the way of the sound effects. In a video game, however, the music is paramount in keeping the level of excitement high and helping to drive the player through each scene.

"It's got to be something that people won't get bored with, so you need to be quite inventive with the themes. You have to make them familiar enough to make them recognisable, but involved enough so they don't become boring when played over and over again. In each song I'll include a climactic point where the music builds up and builds down again. The idea is that the player feels like there's something going on with the action.

"The music is there to add to the environment of a particular mission or a particular level that you're playing. Sometimes it will just loop; other times it'll go into another track while you're still on the same mission, to add some variety and give a different feel. That way the player feels like something more is happening with the game, even if it's not visually, and that gets them to anticipate a little more."

Each game requires around 40 minutes of music in total: 10 to 15 two- or three-minute songs and two longer pieces for the intro and outro movies. Because the majority of the tracks will be repeated, Jeehun explains that there are certain musical rules that have to be observed. "Each track has to start smoothly, and shouldn't end with a big bang either, so that they blend together when they're repeated and it doesn't sound like there's a beginning or an end," he explains. "In cases where the song changes, such as when the game moves to the next level, then I make distinct beginnings and ends because the player's going to be picking another song after the last one is done."

A normal brief for a video game project is, again, similar to that of a film score. The game is usually finished graphically before the producer and director relay their vision to the composer. Then it's up to the composer to interpret that musically.

"Just because a type of music is commercially popular it doesn't mean it's appropriate for a game or a film, so I only ever take it in that direction if I really feel it would be fitting."

"A straightforward project should take about a month or two to score, but that mainly depends on how solid a direction you have, or how quickly as a composer you can come to terms with what kind of music is required," he says. "I've done some film music and it's not that different. They're basically telling you they want it like a certain movie or piece of music and you have to work out what it is about that music they like and try and write something fresh around that."

So using pre-existing music as a frame of reference is okay, but not when it comes down to writing the actual music?

"I prefer not to have to rely on briefs like 'I want this to sound like The Prodigy'. If someone's that specific then obviously I have to write something similar, but I'll usually try and convince them that we should go with something more original," he agrees. "Just because a type of music is commercially popular it doesn't mean it's appropriate for a game or a film, so I only ever take it in that direction if I really feel it would be fitting."

Apocalypse Soon

At the time of the interview, Jeehun had just completed scoring Apocalypse, a futuristic, neo-gothic battle game starring Bruce Willis as the renegade Trey Kincaid whose mission is to save civilisation from the evils of the Four Horsemen [as you do -- Ed]. A second character is played by alternative rock artist Poe, whose up and coming single 'Control' is also featured in the game. Due for a Christmas 1998 release, it's the first ever original video game title to feature such a big-name actor, and therefore ends Jeehun's exclusive deal with Activision on something of a high note.

The score is dark and "very industrial sounding", which, as Jeehun explains, posed some new challenges. "I used a lot more samples than I've ever used before -- mostly weird sounds from CD-ROMs, but also a lot of vocal samples. Poe's song is in there, and I also sampled her vocals and incorporated them into some of the other tracks. It's the first time I've used vocals to this extent in a game," he says.

  Orchestral Manoeuvres  
  Jeehun's pick of the sample CDs. "I have the Advance Orchestra five-CD set, Peter Seidezlick's Orchestra, and World Orchestra. I use a lot of choirs, so I have the Choir Colors and the Orchestral Colors. When I need electronic sounds I'll sometimes seek out weird sounds from CD-ROMs, load them into the K2500 and tweak them a little bit. For sound effects I use the Hollywood Edge library from the post-production house Sound Deluxe, which is a 30-CD set of all kinds of sounds they've created for different projects."  
In addition, there are plans to develop a commercial soundtrack album based on Apocalypse which, in the light of the burgeoning interest in video game music and the current prevalence of movie soundtrack albums, may well strike a chord with more than just Jeehun's hardcore video gamer fans.

In the meantime, however, Jeehun is turning his musical attention towards film projects. He recently scored the new MGM Goldwyn opening sequence, and is currently in talks with various directors about future movie projects. What with that, and running a nightclub, model agency, talent management, music and film production companies, you'd think he had enough on his plate. But in the true spirit of an entrepreneur, he insists he still has more to achieve.

"I actually restructured my company recently to free up my time a little more so I can concentrate more on writing music," he says. "I'm also trying to be a bit more discerning about my video game projects and just do ones that will stretch me creatively. Right now my passion is to score films, but I'd also like to go back to singing in a band. Those are the two things musically I'd like to accomplish next."

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