In the world of video game music, few composers have left a lasting impact on gamers as profound as Frank Klepacki, the legendary composer behind the Command and Conquer series.
Photo: Nate Horsfall
In the world of video game music, few composers have left a lasting impact on gamers as profound as Frank Klepacki, the legendary composer behind the Command and Conquer series. With his distinctive sound and memorable compositions, he has transported players into immersive worlds filled with intense battles, iconic factions, and unforgettable characters. In this interview, we dive deep into his journey as a composer, his approach to creating music for video games, and the secrets behind some of his most beloved compositions.
How did you get into composing music for video games?
So, I started as a tester in high school for Westwood Studios. I have to admit, I wasn't the best tester because I was easily distracted, completely inspired by how games are made. I would often wander around, talking to artists, producers, and everyone else. Eventually, this led me to the audio director. I asked a lot of questions and realized that after graduating, it would be a pretty cool job to make music for games or do something related to audio. Because I had experience in performing live and writing my own music from a young age.
So, after talking with the audio director, he gave me a sort of trial period to prove myself and see if I would be someone he would consider hiring. I passed with flying colors, and that's how I got the job and I became the composer for Westwood Studios. Eventually, that led me to learn more about sound design, voiceovers, and all of that. Along the way, I developed my experience in those areas. That's how I got started.
Your music, mainly for Command and Conquer series, is iconic and has left lasting impact on gamers around the world. How did you approach creating the distinctive sound and style for the series?
Yeah, so it started off as a big experiment. When we did Command and Conquer, the whole point was to create something updated based on what we had achieved with Dune II. You see, Dune II was the original RTS. But Command and Conquer was our own IP, and I was really intrigued by the story they were writing and everything else. But it really started with myself, the audio director, and the president, who was also the visionary behind the game. We had a meeting together and started listening to a lot of music, just trying to bounce ideas off each other.
And he said, "What about this? What about that?" We were listening to movie soundtracks and bands, exploring different vibes and even snippets of songs. So, I took notes on all of it and started composing a wide variety of pieces based on our discussions. My expectation was that they would single out maybe a few of the songs and say this is more of the direction we want and forget about the rest. However, instead, they said, "Ah, let's include them all in the game and see how it works." Surprisingly, everyone seemed to like it.
That became the reason why the original Command & Conquer is so diverse in style because they just liked the variety and wanted to keep that. From that point, though, it did get more refined. So, for example, when I got to Red Alert, it was more focused on having an industrial feel with a cohesive sound blending synth, rock, and a touch of orchestra. I managed to fuse these elements together in a style that made sense and essentially defined the direction of the series going forward.
Command & Conquer is known for its diverse factions, distinct setting and even beloved characters. How did you adapt your musical compositions to reflect those aspects of the series?
In the first C&C, there was definitely a very conscious decision to make a theme for Nod and for Kane. And that is "No Mercy." That's that theme. There's a motif to it. There's a signature string line that is basically the definition of their theme. The GDI theme didn't come until much later. At the end of the game, there were credits for when you win as GDI, and the song is called "Airstrike." Well, there's a guitar melody in that theme that became GDI's motif. But that wasn't until the end of the game.
So, when Tiberian Sun came around, the idea was used extensively throughout the game to define that faction in various ways, including the movies and other elements. In Red Alert, the focus was primarily on the distinctive styles of the Allied and Soviet factions. The Soviets had a heavier sound, while the Allied faction incorporated more synth and groove-based elements. That's how they were defined. Furthermore, in subsequent releases, such as the Firestorm expansion for Tiberian Sun, "Slave to the System" served as Cabal's theme. "I've got a present for you" was the theme for Renegade, paying homage to the original Commando where I provided the voice for that unit. Many elements tied together, and I occasionally reused melodies from previous games in the series. So, every now and then, you would hear a reprisal of themes like "Act on Instinct" or "March to Doom," which diehard C&C fans always recognized.
Your music for the Red Alert series has a distinct retro-futuristic vibe. What inspired you to create such a memorable and fitting soundtrack for the alternate history series?
So that was sort of a thing where I tried a few different ideas first, and it wasn't until after that, we moved more in the contemporary direction. I started off thinking that if we're going to do an alternate history thing, I would create something with a slightly dated sound. I listened to old sci-fi B-movie music and tried to emulate that to some extent, but they weren't sure about it. Then I experimented with more fun, disco-like elements, trying to draw from an older sound, but that didn't quite hit the mark either. Finally, they suggested that even though it's that, it doesn't have to sound that way. They proposed sticking with the signature C&C sound and asked me to refine. That's when the decision to go industrial and create something more cohesive emerged. Once I wrote Hell March, that sort of defined the theme of the game and then everything after that followed.
Okay, I'll just continue with Hell March since you mentioned it. It's one of the most beloved songs in the entire franchise and has become widely recognized. What was the inspiration behind creating this iconic piece?
So, ironically, when they first told me we were going to do another Command & Conquer, I didn't know that it was going to be this alternate history thing and it was going to be Red Alert. I thought we were going to do the sequel to C&C. So, I wrote Hell March as an idea for what I thought would be another Nod song originally, without knowing. So, when I played it for the president of Westwood, he kind of surprised me and just jumped into my office and said, "Hey, you got anything new for me to hear?" And I'm like, "Oh yeah, I just wrote this." And he's like, "This is an awesome song. This should be the main theme for our game." And I'm like, "Seriously? I thought it was going to be more of a Nod theme." And he's like, "No, no, it's not going to be GDI or Nod. It's going to be this Allied-Soviets alternate history thing." And I'm like, "Ooh, okay, really? You want to use that song for that?" And he said, "Yeah."
I think it just had to do with the whole fact of me using the marching and the soldiers yelling, and it just reflected bringing that element of that time into a contemporary music theme. And so, even though it's hard-hitting and heavy, it still fits really well. And he noticed that and wanted to use it for that. So, that really was kind of how it all happened.
And the song starts very strong with the sirens and the bass line. What were the inspirations for these typical aspects of the song that ended up so iconic?
So basically, I woke up one morning, and immediately it came into my mind that I wanted to write a heavy song to the sound of marching boots. That's where it all started. So I said, "Okay, I got to do that as soon as I get to work." So, I drove into work, and I immediately said to my colleague, "Hey, do we have sound libraries with marching sounds on them?" He's like, "Yeah, yeah, we should." So, I looked for the CD that had it, and I immediately sampled it and got it to a tempo that was going to be that marching tempo. And I wrote a song to that. So then, I started with the drums, and then I picked up the guitar, and the first riff that I just started playing was that exact riff. So, it all just started coming naturally to me. The song was written in one day. And that's kind of the origin of it.
But your work isn't just about Command and Conquer. There's Nox, there's other stuff, but I'd like to ask about Dune. How did you approach creating music for an established IP that wasn't your own and music that captured the spirit of the universe?
Yeah, so when we worked on Dune II, an interesting story is that the reason it's called Dune II is because at that time Westwood was bought by Virgin, and Virgin already had another Dune game in the works with a different company, but it wasn't an RTS. It was a different game. So because that was already in the works, that's why ours was called Dune II. So I actually really liked the music that was in the other Dune game. So I took note of that mentally.
But I was also a fan of the David Lynch movie, and I loved the soundtrack to that. So, I pulled a lot of inspiration from that too. But because we were in the era of video games still kind of early on, using FM synthesis and all of that with the early AdLib cards and Sound Blaster cards, I had to be very clever and creative with how I wrote that because we had limited channels. So, I just pushed the limits of all of that. I swapped out all the instruments all the time. I made a lot of custom FM instruments. I slowed the tempo and sped it up and transitioned it into other songs. It was just something that I felt I had a lot of creative input with, and I took advantage of that. So, it was just sort of a combination of all of those things. It was me pushing the boundaries of what the hardware could do and having some inspiration from the other Dune game and from the film. And then, just whatever came to mind for me creatively, I put my own spirit into it, and it seemed to work well.
Let's get to your other works. You have composed music for various genres, including shooters, strategies, RPGs. How do you adapt your musical style to fit the unique gameplay of these games?
There are a lot of other styles of music that I love and also like to write in, like funk, for example, or medieval, or hybridizing other styles together, whether it's techno, jazz, whatever. So, I'm very eclectic in my musical taste and influences. When I get the opportunity to write for another genre or game, I really embrace that and throw myself into it, whatever it's going to be.
So obviously working on games like the Lands of Lore series was more orchestrated and dramatic and medieval. Working on Legend of Kyrandia was more new age, contemporary sort of stuff with a bit more fun moments and a little more groove thrown in. And then getting into Nox, it had a bit more fantasy and was more exaggerated. And then working on Star Wars games, like Star Wars: Empire at War, I got to emulate John Williams' style, which comes naturally to me as he has been my main influence from the very beginning. So it's not hard for me to adapt to another style for that reason, thanks to my eclectic taste, background, and ability to embrace and move forward with it. I feel confident in whatever I take on.
Since you mentioned Star Wars: Empire at War, is it difficult to compose music for these kinds of IPs? Because John Williams' music is so iconic that everyone knows it. Even people who haven't seen Star Wars know that it's the music of John Williams. Yet, you still want to create something unique. Is it challenging to strike a balance between capturing the essence of John Williams' style while maintaining your own artistic identity?
As a die-hard fan, I ask myself, from that perspective, what would I want if I were playing a Star Wars game? And the answer is clear: I would want to hear that iconic John Williams music. So, first and foremost, I incorporate his music wherever it makes sense, staying true to the lore and the cinematic experience.
But as a composer who's going to contribute something new to that, I said, what I'm going to do is I'm going to put my own music in areas that are not part of the movies, that are new areas that we haven't explored before. Different planets, more generic space battles, things of that nature. My goal is to blend in with what is already established, not to stand out and try to do my own thing with it. That was important to me. Not to try to hog the spotlight but to just put music where there are new areas and have that be the thing that fans say, "Oh, this is new, I haven't seen this planet, I haven't seen this before, now there's new music here, that's cool." But everything else is familiar and that's important as a fan, to keep that balance.
Let's continue to your most recent work, that's The Great War: Western Front. How does your workflow differ from working on a historical game compared to other sci-fi strategies or other strategies?
I did a different approach for this game, something different that I hadn't done before. It was still all orchestra music, which, of course, is nothing new to me, but the style of it I wanted to do something a bit different with because we're talking about real history here and the game is paying homage to that.
At first, I researched old movies about World War I, and there wasn't really a lot of music in the older movies. A lot of it is silent with just dialogue. And then the newer movies about World War I were very dramatic but depressing, with a lot of droning and nothing memorable. I'm like, okay, well that's not really an approach I want to take.
So I found balance by studying classical composers of the era of World War I, and I listened to a lot of that music. I pulled dramatic elements from those types of pieces and composers that I liked, which suited a game or a film soundtrack that I would enjoy. I wrote based on that, and of course, my natural instinct is to have a John Williams approach. So I used War Horse as an example of his work because that's also based in the World War I era too.
So I was like, alright, now how do I take all of these influences and elements and put them into a game that is known to have the subject matter be completely brutal, and turn it into something that doesn't feel depressing, you know? Like it should fit, and it shouldn't sound happy, but it should sound neutral in spots where you're slowed down and strategizing, just placing your troops and figuring it out. And then when you're in battle and things are more intense, that's where it should shift. That was really the difference with this game as I composed for it.
What personally fascinated you about the RTS genre? Because you're mainly known for the RTS genre, you've done a lot of other stuff, but what fascinated you about this one, and are you a fan?
Well, it's an interesting question because I was there from the beginning, right? So it's not like I had an interest in the RTS genre because it didn't exist yet until Dune II, and then I just wrote for Dune II based on what I was inspired from the Dune IP. But when we got to C&C, again, like I explained before, because that was a big experiment, I wasn't thinking of a genre as much as I was just thinking about what would fit the game.
And then it just sort of continued to develop from there. Just as we did more of those kinds of games, it just became something that evolved. And I guess this goes for any game that I do. It's an interest in serving the game as best I can.
Your music is popular to this day, and in part, it's due to the popularity of your collaboration with the Tiberian Sons. So how did this collaboration come about?
It really kind of all started with the show that we did together at MAGFest in 2019. Leading up to that, I had been friends with Tony Dickinson, who basically headed up the Tiberian Sons as a band. And they specialized in doing epic, rocking covers of different video game themes. And his kickoff for that was to do a cover of Hell March. Tony personally reached out to me via email to ask for my advice on his remix. I gave him some mixing tips, and he took it from there.. And so we became friends through that.
And he's the one who originally told me about MAGFest and said it was something that he thought I should check out, that I would really like it. I'm like, alright, cool, I'll keep that in mind. But then I kept hearing the same comment from other colleagues or peers in the industry whom I respect. After hearing it multiple times, I thought, alright, I've got to go. So I contacted the organizers and shared my idea for a show that I hadn't done before. I told them I wanted to do a Command and Conquer show. Their response was, "We'll give you the headline slot." I thought, okay, let's do it.
So then as soon as I got that, I called up Tony and I said, hey, man, I need a band to play with me for MAGFest. So what do you guys say? And he's like, oh, yeah. So everybody was on board. And then I took it from there. I put together the show. Everybody learned their parts. And we didn't even rehearse until we got there the day or two before. And then we played the show, and it went off great. So that kicked off our collaboration together. Later, when I was working on the C&C Remastered Collection, EA saw our MAGFest show and said, "Hey, can you guys record legitimate versions of that? And we can include them as bonus tracks in the game." And we're like, yeah. So we worked that out, and then we became part of the game as a group.
And then after that, we released an original EP together. So we have an original EP of music that's out as well. And that immediately got licensed in a couple of other video games. And then most recently, we scored a trailer for the Speed Freeks game that was announced. So that has given us some momentum as a band to pursue other opportunities. And now, here we are in Brno, ready to put on another concert. We're back in action.
Photo: Nate Horsfall
The industry has evolved significantly since you started composing. How did this evolution influence your creative process and the way you approach composing music for video games?
My creative process is still very much the same. However, the biggest change that I take note of in the industry is just that there's a lot of oversaturation out there in terms of just anybody can put up anything now. So many indie studios out there are doing things. There's so many games that come out every week, every month. So it's a lot harder to market games because of that. You really have to have a large marketing budget behind anything you do or you've got to have some momentum in another way.
It has become a lot more difficult for mid-level games to have as good a shot as AAA titles or indie titles that get lucky with having some success. It's just a weird new climate out there of development. If anything, it's just more about navigating that. It doesn't really affect my process for coming up with composition and music. That's still very much the same. It's just about, again, doing what's best for the game, doing what I'm feeling good about as a composer, and then making sure the client is happy with that. The approval process and deadline process is still very much the same as it's always been. If anything, I wish there was more attention given to not holding off audio decisions in production until the last minute. I'm fortunate enough to have been with companies that I'm on staff with, so then I can see the game from beginning to end. I have the advantage of being able to iterate and make decisions along the way. Whereas if you're brought in as a contractor, you're being brought in at the tail end of everything. It's like, hurry up and get it done. It's one of those things that's the dynamic.
After so many years of successful projects, are there still any specific genres of projects you haven't yet explored but would love to work on?
I'm still a big fan of fantasy RPGs. I would love to do more of that again. I'm more interested in just unique games now than anything because I get tired of seeing more of the same or just a knockoff of something. I would rather see something that has a unique art style, a unique spin on it, a unique style guide at least. There are good examples of that over the years that I've come to really enjoy. Like Cuphead was a great, just totally different type of game as a platformer using this very vintage animated style and the jazz music, and all of that was really great. And then you've got Ori and the Blind Forest, again a very great stylized game with beautiful music and visuals and gameplay. And then I was really addicted to Conan Exiles for a long time because I love the whole way you can just craft something that's more realistic-looking in a fantasy world and sandbox kind of thing. So different games that have a unique spin to them like that are appealing to me, and that's more of what I look for now when it comes to projects that I'm the most interested in being a part of. It's stuff like that. I want to see something where people are having fun with what they're working on.
How do you think AI will influence the process of music composition in the future for video games, for movies or whatever?
Well, there's a funny meme that I saw recently that sums up that for me - To replace creatives with AI, clients will need to accurately describe what they are looking for. So we're safe.
But you can iterate and iterate and iterate, and maybe one day it will have the answer. Yeah, I'm not really too worried about that. AI is so new that it's one of those things where it needs to not rely on other copyrighted material for it to function. That's the big controversy right now, and I think that people need to be educated about not relying on that. You should still have to do something original with it, that's my point. It can be a powerful tool, but if all you do is throw a bunch of stuff that already exists into it, that you don't have rights to use, then you should still use other people to create something original for you. If it helps you come up with an idea of a style or something, that's one thing to use it for. Just say, hey, this is what I have in mind, now do something original based on that. But you shouldn't use that stuff outright.