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'Fringe' composer Chris Tilton on rethinking the sound of 'SimCity'

'Fringe' composer Chris Tilton on rethinking the sound of 'SimCity'


The difference between game and TV music, and why TV can be more satisfying

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Chris Tilton
Chris Tilton

For the last five years, Chris Tilton served as the composer and orchestrator on Fringe, and prior to that he worked on a number of games and TV shows: everything from Alias to the Mercenaries series to an orchestral fan remix of the 1UP Show theme. Most recently, he's been working on the soundtrack for the just-released reboot of SimCity, the first entry in the series in a decade. We talked to Tilton about the differences between composing for TV and games, and why he wants to work with Valve.

What are you up to right now?

I'm just in my studio on my computer, browsing Facebook and stupid things.

What is a regular day for you like?

It really depends on what I'm working on. For Fringe — when Fringe was on — I'll just come in and continue working on things until I'm done. I'll usually get the video about four days before it's due, and I'll spend three of those writing it and one day recording it.

What was the experience like working on Fringe, and how did it feel when you got to take over that project?

It was really exciting. I'd worked for Michael Giacchino as his assistant back when he was doing Alias, and I did get to do music for Alias towards the end of its run. But it was always working within the themes and the confines of how he defined what the sound of that show is. Whereas Fringe was still trying to find its way and when I was asked to try some things it was all from the guise of, just start from scratch and do what you think should be done.

"In games you're kind of writing to the idea of something."

How does that compare to doing a game like SimCity? Is there a big difference in terms of composing the music for a television show versus a game?

I think your goals are the same: to help tell the story. The story of a game can be incredibly simple to much more following the narrative of a movie. I've seen it go from these phases, from long, loopable pieces to it's gotta be super interactive, and it's got all of these bits and pieces, and then back to longer pieces of music. You're writing the music before a lot of the stuff has been finished. In games you're kind of writing to the idea of something. For a film or TV show everything is already done: the cinematography is done, the directing is done, the editing is done, the acting is done.

Do you have a preference between the two styles of composing?

The pacing is different: I have three to four days to write 20-30 minutes of music for TV, and now I have four months, and sometimes longer, to think about and write a couple hours of music. You get to think about it more, you get to sit with it more, try different things out. Writing for TV with a narrative, and acting, and performance, and emotional impact is usually going to be more satisfying in the long run. Not that games can't do that, but most of them just haven't done that yet.

With SimCity, obviously the series already has some pretty iconic music, so is that something you take into consideration when you're making the sound for the new game?

Well there hasn't been a SimCity game in a while. SimCity 4 was in 2003. Music sensibilities have changed a bit since then, and in fact the directive from the beginning was let's not just do the same things we've done in the other SimCity games. So there wasn't a lot of going back into the library and listening to stuff and saying "let's do something like that." It was more, nobody has worked on a SimCity game in a while, and we're doing a brand new one, so let's re-think what SimCity is. And it was a similar thing with the music: let's re-think what SimCity music should be.

"Let's re-think what 'SimCity' music should be."

One of the things with SimCity games is people play them for a long time. How do you get around that, making sure they're not just hearing the same repetitive sounds over and over?

When you have wall-to-wall music — not just in a game, but in a movie — eventually it just becomes white noise. It just never shuts up, so you never get any breathing room, so eventually you just tune it out. I'm always a big proponent of not having music as much as having music.

Having only played the beta, I'm not sure where that balance ended up, but there's definitely parts where there's just no music. I also wrote each piece of music in several different layers depending on which kind of mode you're in. So if you're zoomed out in the region view you'll hear a lot more orchestral stuff come in, more of the grandness of the orchestra. As you get a middle-of-the-road view, some of the guitar elements and simpler things start to come in. And then when you get really close and you're zoomed in, you hear more sounds in the city and a lot less music.

One of the interesting things about game music now is that a lot of people listen to it outside of the game — like I was just listening to the SimCity soundtrack on Rdio. Is that something you think about when you're composing?

I think with games, because you're often not writing to the specific ups and downs of a pre-edited narrative of a show or movie, you end up inherently writing in a song-like structure that makes sense from a pure listening standpoint. I think that's a reason why a lot of game music tends to play well by itself, because it was written almost by itself with just vague context of what the music is supposed to do. Whereas with TV music, the music is responding to all these things on screen, and if you're a listener and you haven't seen it, it might not make a whole lot of sense.

You've worked on some pretty big properties in the past — what's your favorite thing you worked on so far?

Well Fringe would be, because getting to craft the sound of the show from the ground up and being able to go on the five year journey that the characters went on, it was an emotional ride. So far Fringe has been the most satisfying thing I've done because I got to see a TV show go from beginning to end on its own terms, and that's not something a lot of composers get to do. So I feel very lucky that I was not only able to write the music for a show like that, but write music whose role was much more like a movie — it wasn't just a bunch of drones in the background.

"It was an emotional ride."

You look at some of the shows that are in their eleventh season, and usually those shows go through some composers because you get tired of working on it. Those are perfectly good steady gigs, but sometimes, by the time you're at the ninth season, it's almost paint by numbers at that point. I feel very lucky to have worked on a show like Fringe that went to all kinds of different, interesting places, and so the music had to go to interesting and satisfying places as well.

You mentioned earlier having wanted to work on your Star Wars — is there a franchise or company or person that you would just have to work with now, sort of like a dream job?

It's so weird, working on Fringe and even being just an ancillary part of Bad Robot, and then seeing JJ Abrams take on all these properties I loved as a kid, like Mission Impossible and Star Wars. I can't really answer that, because even working on Mission Impossible 3 as an orchestrator was awesome.

You know, I always love what Valve does — obviously they have their own in-house people to do music for all of their games, so it's not necessarily feasible — but the way they handle their games and the way they handle their company was partly an inspiration for how I want to do my own small company. So if they ever wanted anyone outside of the company to do music for them, I would say "sure." And also [Bioshock creator] Ken Levine, I like him alot as a writer. After Bioshock came out I thought, "Oh man, I would love to work with Ken Levine."

Interview condensed and edited by Andrew Webster and Thomas Houston.