Inon Zur Interview (07/01/2003)
Recently we were given the opportunity to interview Inon Zur, whom the fans of the Infinity Engine games should recognize as the composer of the Baldur's Gate II: Throne of Bhaal and Icewind Dale II music. Zur's other game music scores include Fallout Tactics, Star Trek: Klingon Academy, Star Trek: New Worlds and more. Here is what we asked.
SP: Please tell us a bit about your background and how you got into the business.
Inon Zur: I was born in Israel and got my basic musical education there. In 1990 we arrived to LA and I started studying in the Grove school of music. I studied composition and orchestration, and later on I completed my education in UCLA studying film scoring.
approximately 6 years for the Fox Family channel, composing over 300 TV
episodes for shows like Power Rangers, Beatle Borgs, Escaflowne, Big Guy
and Rusty, Mystic Knights of Tir Na Nog and more. I also composed many
TV movies, among them Aupair, Aupair II and St. Patrick the Irish Legend.
In 1997 I composed the score for my first video game – Klingon Academy. Since then I have composed many titles.
SP: When did you start writing music and what has spurred the interest?
Inon Zur: I started to compose music when I was 9 years old. Throughout my teenage years I composed numerous songs and short compositions. I think that I was encouraged strongly by my parents to be involved in music. I remember listening to classical music since a very early age and singing a lot with them. This is probably how it all started, and then later on I was given all the tools that were needed to become a composer - piano lessons, music theory and composition and lots of attention and support.
SP: Which composers and musicians have influenced your work the most?
Inon Zur: I am very much influenced by composers from the “romantic era” of classical music – 19th – 20th century composers. Specific composers that are a big influence on my writing style are Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Debusy and Ravel. I’m also influenced by jazz composers and musicians like Gershwin and Bernstein. In film score I admire Williams and Goldsmith.
SP: Where do you get your inspiration from?
Inon Zur: Inspiration can evolve from many unexpected things. I could hear some music that will suddenly evoke a theme, I can hear some sounds that will evoke musical rhythm, and I can have a conversation that will evoke a musical idea. I have learned that you should keep your antennas constantly open and your senses should be awake all the time in order to receive and process musical messages and ideas. It is all the time in the air, you just need to learn how to grab it.
SP: How does music composition process for a game start? Do you actually play the game you are composing music for, or just work by screenshots & the description of the atmosphere the developers want in a specific area?
Inon Zur: I do try to get every bit of information on the game before I start composing. That means looking at videos taken from the game, looking at snapshots, pictures and reading all the descriptions I can get from everybody involved in the game. Establishing the musical style for the game is the hardest task. Sometimes I will ask to play with the game or a similar game just to get the feel of it.
SP: Do you spend much more time on composing the main theme song for a game than on other pieces?
Inon Zur: Obviously, the main title of the game is something you want to invest lots of time in to make it really good and memorable. Many times this will be the one you will spend the most time and effort on.
SP: To which extent do you work with a game's development team on the composition of a soundtrack?
Inon Zur: It varies between each game. It depends upon how much the developers want to be involved in every step of the process. Usually, though, the audio supervisor will work with you and together you will produce a good and satisfactory result, so the developers, (who are very busy with other stuff) won’t have to mess with it too much. This way you save them the extra work and let them only decide on crucial artistic issues.
SP: How do you feel has the mentality surrounding game music changed over the years?
Inon Zur: I feel that the gamers of today have much more expectations from the musical score. That’s because the game engines got much better and allow better sound quality, and also because many good composers have already set high standards in previous games. Film music has also influenced games, since many games are actually derived from films. I think that game developers are defiantly searching for many new directions in music, and we, as composers are trying to answer these challenges every time.
SP: What is your opinion on mp3s? Would you approve of people downloading your game soundtracks, for example?
Inon Zur: Overall I’m not thrilled with this idea. First, the quality is not as good as in the actual game or CD, so they are loosing part of the experience, and the music is not being represented the way I’d like it to be. Also, I think that the listeners and gamers should be aware that part of paying respect to composer is to get his or her music the right way. From the other side, I realize that it is very hard to get game music without the game itself. There are very few games soundtracks that are being offered to the consumers. I hope that this will change in the near future.
SP: Do you retain copyrights to music pieces you create for games? I have noticed that some composers re-use music written for games in movies (and vice versa), for example.
Inon Zur: The legal issues and rules regarding music are in fact quite simple and are agreed on contractually. Usually, the way it works is the company is buying the music from you, so you are not permitted to reuse this music for a different project. You, however, are retaining the right on the composition, so the company is limited on the use of your music.
SP: How much competition is there in the field of game music composition? And how much competition is there usually before a composer for a certain game project is selected?
Inon Zur: The competition is quite big. Today, many composers are trying to get games, and it is becoming more and more prestigious to be involved in these projects. There are cases where the company is requesting you specifically. In that case, and if you are free, there is no competition. In other cases you are competing against other composers, and it is not easy at all.
SP: What are some of your favourite game soundtracks you have worked on and why?
Inon Zur: This is a very hard question. I put lots of work into any project and always try to make it my best work. I do think that IWD II came out well and has some interesting moments in it. So do Baldur’s Gate [Throne of Bhaal] and Fallout Tactics. Nevertheless, Klingon Academy and Starfleet Command are both projects that I’m very proud of. It all depends on the individual’s taste in music.
SP: What sort of equipment do you use to compose your music?
Inon Zur: I’m using a midi system, combining samplers and synthesizers, all controlled by a sequencing software on a Mac. My system is in fact a complete orchestra simulator that allows me to compose freely for orchestra and sounds as close as it could get to the real thing. The main sampler I’m using is the PC based GIGASTUDIO, which is an extremely powerful sampler. Throughout the years I have built my own sound library and I continue to add newer and better sounds all the time.
SP: What type of games do you like to play the most?
Inon Zur: I’m a big fan of Star Trek and other space mission type games. As an officer in the Israeli Army I can appreciate good shooting and flight maneuvering missions, and I enjoy those quite a lot.
SP: What games and other music projects are you currently working on?
Inon Zur: Currently I’m working on Lionheart and have just started on a new major title which I cannot reveal yet.