That Sweet, Suite Music: Orchestrating Tomb Raider

Written By: Erika Haase

Special Guests: Nathan McCree & Shelley Blond

Where does one begin in writing an article about Tomb Raider? Now that we’re celebrating 20 years of Lara Croft’s death defying exploits to recover mystical artifacts that range from Atlantis to the secrets of immortality, it seems an insurmountable task. An icon, a trailblazer, and a game that has defined so much of the industry – Tomb Raider and Lara Croft have become all of these things. Even through the series’ most troubled times, Lara has remained a monument and role-model for the video game explorers and treasure hunters who came after her, Uncharted’s Nathan Drake included. As her identity and franchise continues to evolve, however, it’s important to remember the weight of Tomb Raider’s history. Outside of playing the original titles, perhaps one of the best ways to do this is through the iconic music composed by Nathan McCree. Nathan’s work in composing for the first three Tomb Raider games laid the foundation for countless iterations of those classic melodies in games (and the movies) to follow. While this work was seemingly entirely absent from the reboot titles, the PS4 release of Rise of The Tomb Raider, as well as the Blood Ties DLC on other platforms contained a secret. Exploring Lara’s mansion led to the discovery of a record player that filled the room with “Venice”, music not heard since Tomb Raider II.

In December of 2016, if you were lucky enough to be in London and have the tickets, “old school” Tomb Raider made another kind of re-appearance. Fully orchestrated renditions of Nathan’s music, performed live by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the Eventim Apollo, were re-arranged by the original composer himself, with a few new pieces thrown in as well. Lara Croft’s original voice actor, Shelley Blond, was present to MC the event, making the night all the more magical. Now, at long last, the rest of the world is going to get their chance to listen to Tomb Raider in the way that many might argue it was always meant to be heard.

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From Nathan McCree’s Twitter account, the night of the Tomb Raider concert

On May 26th, 2017, the Kickstarter for The Tomb Raider Suite will begin. A brand-new recording at the famous Abbey Road Studios will take place, once again performed by the Royal Philharmonic, and under the watchful eye of composer Nathan McCree who has made it his current priority and mission to bring his original work to life in a manner worthy of Ms. Croft herself. It was my immense honor to be able to speak with Nathan about this new undertaking, his top five favorite Tomb Raider tracks, potential for future Tomb Raider involvement, and more.

As a special bonus, while she’s not officially involved in the recording of The Tomb Raider Suite, I was also able to speak with the original Lara Croft, Shelley Blond, for words of support, as well as a few tidbits about her own past with Tomb Raider.

Enjoy, and check back to this article after May 26th for direct links to the Kickstarter should you choose to support the project yourself! You can also go to the official site for the project now, and keep it bookmarked for when the Kickstarter goes live. The Tomb Raider Suite is currently planned for distribution digitally and physically on both CD and vinyl.

An Interview with Tomb Raider I, II, & III Composer, Nathan McCree:

 

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Nathan McCree

/BCG: First off, a massive welcome to Big Cheshire Grin. It’s such an honor to have you as a guest.

Nathan McCree: Thank you for having me. 🙂

/BCG: Your Kickstarter for The Tomb Raider Suite recording begins May 26th, and represents a culmination of talent and craftsmanship finally fully realized. The Tomb Raider Suite, for those who don’t know, is a studio recording of the pieces that were performed live in London this past December by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. It is planned to be freshly recorded at the famous Abbey Road Studios once again by the Royal Philharmonic.

/BCG: Nathan, to start, can you describe the process of bringing this iconic music to life on such a large scale, first as a live concert, and now for a studio recording?

NM: Sure. I first of all, picked a list of the most favourite and popular tunes from the first 3 Tomb Raider computer games. Because the game cues were often short, sometimes only 20 seconds long, I wanted to extend each of the pieces up to approximately 3 minutes in duration. So, I had to rebuild some of the MIDI files and then write extra material to stretch out the pieces to 3 minutes. I did this for 22 tunes and then I wrote 3 medleys – 1 for each of the games. The 25 tracks in total then went to my orchestrator – a chap in England called Adam Langston – who converted my MIDI files into fully orchestrated scores on Sibelius. These files then get sent to a copyist who extracts all the individual parts or printing into books per instrument. These books then get sent to the musicians in the orchestra who rehearse their parts before all getting together for the 1 x 3 hour practise session before the concert.

NM: With regards to the studio recording… We need to extend the scores a little to suit a slightly bigger orchestra, but after that the process is pretty much the same. There will be a practise session, and then we start recording. The main difference of course is that if the orchestra makes a mistake, we can re-record until we get a good take. After that the recording is mixed (probably at another studio), then mastered at a mastering studio, and then it is sent to the CD/Vinyl production plant to be mass produced and distributed into the shops.

/BCG: Do you see yourself being a regular presence for the studio recording to make sure everything is performed the way you hear it in your head, or do you trust a lot of that to your orchestrator, and step in only occasionally?

NM: Oh absolutely. I am there to spot any mistakes with the performance, and also to resolve any technical problems concerning the recording. The orchestrator is really there to serve me if we need to make some last-minute changes for some reason. So, I will be in the control room with the sound engineer with 100% attention on what’s going on.

/BCG: In an interview for the 20 Years of Tomb Raider book by Meagan Marie, you mentioned something about video game music I found interesting. At the time of the original Tomb Raider in 1996 you said, “I guess I was bored of the games music that was there at the time, which was mostly just action music and that was about it. There was nothing else, there was no emotional content in games, there was no sadness, there was no love interest, there was no loss, there was no melancholy. There was none of that, and I thought with Tomb Raider, there was room for it.”

/BCG: Can you describe how you see the games music scene now, since you’ve never stopped composing since the Tomb Raider days, and perhaps tell us some other games that have stood out to you since as champions of expressing the emotions you listed above within a video game score?

NM: I think the games music scene has more attention on it now. I think some developers are starting to see the value in having a good soundtrack. I’m not sure about another title that expresses the emotions I listed. I would like to think there is one. A couple of games which stood out for me in terms of having a good soundtrack were EA’s Medal of Honor and Sierra’s Homeworld. I remember in Homeworld there is one level where, when you first play it, you usually lose and you watch your space fleet get slowly annihilated by the enemy.  At the point, they play Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” (the choral version) which is extremely melancholy. So, I would like to think that these kinds of emotions are slowly entering the games world.

/BCG: Now a days people can jump online and buy the OST officially for almost every major game release, but back then, I remember listening to the tracks off the original Tomb Raider game disc. Aside from a very rare Japanese RPG imported soundtrack, you had to resort to downloading ripped tracks off of Napster and Kazaa if you wanted something to hold on to. There certainly wasn’t social media the way we know it now.

/BCG: When did you finally start having those moments where you knew how important that music had become to the fans on a wide-spread scale?  When did you start feeling like the music from Tomb Raider was iconic?

NM: You know, I took a bit of a gamble when I wrote Tomb Raider. I thought, if the gamers like movies, and they like the musical content in movies, then why not put some of that musical content into a game. So I did that, and it worked. The emails I received from the fans indicated clearly that they liked this kind of content. But it wasn’t until after Tomb Raider II that I realised we had made something very significant. And after Tomb Raider III there was more confirmation again. I was receiving interest from all sorts of other businesses, enquiring about the Tomb Raider music, licensing opportunities, offers to record the album (back then!). But I wasn’t able to respond as Eidos were the owners of the IP and they were not interested in exploiting the soundtrack at that time. But having all this interest lead to me working with The Spice Girls, amongst many other companies, and I was also invited over to Universal Studios to meet Lloyd Levin who was the producer for the first Tomb Raider movie. So, I guess then it really hit home that I had written something which many people all over the world really liked.

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/BCG: Yea, I’d say that would make you feel it for sure, haha!

/BCG: Your own musical background encompasses the range from classic to modern. Is it true you used to sing in a choir as a young boy, and if so, is that where you developed a love of the kinds of chanting, harmonious sounds we often hear in those original Tomb Raider games?

NM: Yes, absolutely. I was singing in a church choir from the age of 6 right through until I was 19. So, I’ve had many years studying choral music and learning about that sound. So yes of course this came into play with Tomb Raider. I like working with voices. It is a very unique sound, and the synth choirs which I had on the keyboards back in 1996 were actually pretty good. If you were careful you could make them sound very close to the real thing!

/BCG: I always thought they were! Of course, that was before technology allowed for actual orchestration directly in games, but like you said it was very, very close.

/BCG: For me, Tomb Raider II is home to the pinnacle of who Lara Croft is musically. Everything from that moody, more elaborate menu theme to the action music of the snowmobile moments (only topped of course by the infamous T-Rex theme). This may be like asking to pick a favorite child for you, so I won’t ask you to pick just one – what are your top five pieces in the Tomb Raider games that you composed for?

NM: OK so top five tunes would have to be…The Tomb Raider Theme, The T-Rex, Time To Run, A Friend Since Gone, and Venice. Actually, I could list more – even 5 is too short!!

/BCG: Which piece of Tomb Raider music challenged you the most?

NM: I guess Venice was the most challenging.

/BCG: Is that because it pulled from a lot of classical influences? I know you’ve said you listened to Vivaldi in getting inspired for that one, correct?

NM: Yes, exactly.

/BCG: Ha, no pressure in trying to compose on that level!

NM: Yeah! Just a bit!! 😉

/BCG: I know you’re very vocal on Twitter about being totally open to coming back to the Tomb Raider franchise. For every long-standing fan out there, hearing your Venice music as a secret in Lara’s mansion in the Rise Of The Tomb Raider: Blood Ties DLC was a great surprise. Have you been contacted, or can you speak about coming back, in terms of a real possibility?

NM: I can’t really talk about that at this time. But I will say that there is a real possibility.

/BCG: I’ll take that, and let my imagination run wild! 🙂

NM: 🙂

/BCG: Many people have asked why a Kickstarter is necessary (not out of malice, simply out of surprise, I think) to produce The Tomb Raider Suite. One of the biggest questions, obviously, is ‘why isn’t Crystal Dynamics/Square-Enix not footing the bill for this themselves?’ Is there any clarification you’d like to give on the realities (and legalities) of keeping this music alive when it’s been passed through so many corporate hands?

NM: Ok, so I can’t discuss the details of the contract I have with Square-Enix, but suffice to say, if they were funding it, my percentage ownership would be less, and I wanted to retain as much ownership as possible. So, the responsibility to fund it lies with me.

/BCG: Totally understand, and ownership is so important for creators, so I respect that

NM: Indeed.

/BCG: A new piece you wrote for the live concert, In the Blood, encompasses Lara from all three games. It’s been received very positively, and it’s honestly quite moving to hear new music from the same composer from such a nostalgic time in my own life. Have you composed other new pieces for The Tomb Raider Suite.

NM: Yes, I wrote another new piece for The Tomb Raider Suite called “Precious Moments” which ended the first half of the concert.

/BCG: What was it like getting back into that head-space of “composing for Lara” after all these years?

NM: When I started the project, I was a little worried that I would struggle to find motivation for the new material. Most composers will agree with me that when you listen to music that you wrote a long time ago, you always think, “God, I could do that so much better now!”. So, I was concerned that my enthusiasm for the project would be low. But to my surprise, I found myself really liking the tunes I wrote 20 years ago, and here was an opportunity to extend those pieces into stand-alone pieces of music. I was really energised by the project and I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of the 4 months I spent in the studio working on it. 🙂

/BCG: Video game concerts are becoming, thankfully, more and more popular with the efforts of organizations like Video Games Live, the Distant World concerts featuring the legendary music of Final Fantasy, and a myriad of performances in Japan thanks to Square-Enix, a very recent example being the music for Nier: Automata. Legendary game composer Nobuo Uematsu is sometimes referred to as the “Beethoven of video game music.”  I find it sad, however, that many of these tracks are still relegated to simply being “video game music” instead of simply “great music.”

/BCG: Do you think the production levels, full orchestrations, and performances and recordings like the one you’re producing are enough to make game music more mainstream, or do you feel it will always be niche? If you see an evolution happening, what do you think is the most important way for that to continue?

NM: Yes, I think games music will continue to gain more recognition as more and more live concerts happen and soundtracks get recorded. It’s a corner I have been fighting for the last 24 years. It is happening now, but slowly. At least we have BAFTA awards for Games Music now, which we didn’t have when I wrote Tomb Raider! The best way for this to continue is for publishers to recognise the talent they have and the monetary value from the exploitation of the music IP in their games. That will drive it forward for sure.

/BCG: I totally agree.

/BCG: Well, that about wraps it up, I think! Thank you again, I know you’re a very busy man. I can’t stress enough how much your music stood out to me as a teenager and how many times I found myself humming its tunes. As someone who’s played every Tomb Raider game, even the mobile ones, I never dreamed I’d get to talk to the person behind its best music, and I really appreciate you taking the time for this interview. Thank you for being so devoted to the fans, and for preserving Lara’s legacy like this. It means so much. All the best to you.

NM: You’re welcome. It was good to talk to you.

Special Extra Interview & Words of Support from Voice Actor & The Original Lara Croft, Shelley Blond:

Shelley_Blond headshot
Shelley Blond

/BCG: First things first, thank you for agreeing to be a featured part of my chat with Nathan McCree about the Kickstarter to get The Tomb Raider Suite into the hands of fans around the world. Welcome.

Shelley Blond: Ahh lovely to speak to you. That’s right, it’s a fabulous way to allow all the hard core loyal fans the opportunity to hear it played by a live orchestra…exactly how it should be heard.

/BCG: To be clear you don’t have an official association with, or hand in, this recording of The Tomb Raider Suite, however you did get to be on stage at the Eventim Apollo in London this past December as a presenter for the original concert. Can you talk a little about the energy of the event, and what it was like to hear those remasters in person?

SB: Yes. The evening of The Tomb Raider Suite was absolutely incredible. To stand in the wings of the stage and hear that music, played by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, was absolutely magical. Such an incredible experience. It took me a good few days to get rid of the goosebumps. Nathan’s music really came to life. I found my heart was pumping, the adrenaline was really going wild and it was all the music.

SB: Being the original voice of Lara Croft, Nathan asked me to compere the evening. He thought it would be a nice touch to have me host it and introduce each piece of music, and I couldn’t refuse. To work with Nathan again and hear those melodies, to be part of such a precious event for the fans, was beyond words.

/BCG: Had you been in touch with Nathan at all since those early days of recording? Had you been aware of the music he was composing back then, or were you pleasantly surprised to hear how it all came together for the first Tomb Raider?

SB: We weren’t in touch after the recording of the game at all, but he found me on Twitter, and it was great to connect again after 20 years! I wasn’t at all aware of the music he was writing. It was just so incredible to hear it all live in such a magnificent setting.

/BCG: The fan base is obviously passionate about Lara Croft – who she is, and what she represents to them. I’m included in that number as she was a massively important character for me as an early teenager. I find it interesting, however, that the original melodies have also held so much weight in the years and iterations of Tomb Raider since. Do you have any thoughts on the importance of music in helping to define a character, especially one as powerful as Lara Croft?

SB: Music is perhaps the most important ingredient whether it’s for a film, play or computer game. Without melodies to help the mood, it loses a little something. Look at the film Jaws. Yes, scary to imagine what lurks under the water, but with the music – utterly terrifying. I don’t think the music helped to define Lara’s character, that is down to the voice and the costume, but his music absolutely enhanced the game and is 50% if not more of the reason for the success of the game along with costume, graphics, etc.

/BCG: In regards to Nathan’s project, do you feel it’s of critical importance to have the early days of the franchise captured this way? We live in a very fast paced world full of remakes and reboots – Tomb Raider is certainly not immune as a franchise.

SB: It is a wonderful tribute not only to the fact that the franchise is still so successful, but to the fans. So many people have told me their stories of how Lara and Tomb Raider changed their lives, and they are very uplifting, heart wrenching stories. I feel that it’s also a little tribute to them. A lovely nostalgic trip.

/BCG: Was there a reason you didn’t return for the second game?

SB: I was in fact asked by them (Core Design) to record the second game but was unable to. The second game was recorded a year after the first, and by that time I was already contracted to other companies. I just couldn’t do the job as much as I would have liked to, but gave my permission to use all my soundbites on games 2 and 3.

/BCG: Have you kept up with any of the other voice actors for Lara Croft?

SB: I only know Jonell (Jonell Elliot Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation, Tomb Raider: Chronicles, Tomb Raider: The Angel Of Darkness) out of all the voices of Lara. Her and I go way back to our West End theatre days when we performed in Elvis: the Musical for Bill Kenwright. Both Jonell and I are all singing and dancing and from the second we met, which was 1996, the same year I recorded Lara’s voice, we got on like a house on fire. We had an absolute riot together on Elvis, and I love the bones of that girl. Whenever we see each other we hug till we ache.

/BCG: Aside from the concert presentation last year, have you done anything else officially tied to your Tomb Raider history?

SB: I haven’t done any other voice jobs related to Tomb Raider apart from a few fan sites very recently in celebration of the 20 years. I did host a decorating programme in my presenting days on Trouble TV called Room Raider, I guess they thought it was fun to play on the name, but Tomb Raider or my being the voice was never once mentioned.

/BCG: Any closing thoughts before you get back to regular life?

SB: I just hope that Nathan is able to get it all off the ground as it would be incredible for all the fans to have access to this phenomenal music. It’s so lovely to chat [with] you and to be part of something so meaningful to you. I love that my voice is a part of your earliest memories of the game. Means a lot.

/BCG: From the bottom of my heart, thank you again for your time. My younger self is in awe, and my adult self…well to be quite honest, made quite a girly noise when you agreed to speak with me. To me, and millions of others, your contribution was magic and it is only matched by the memorable melodies that went along with it. I’m sure you’ll be enjoying listening to The Tomb Raider Suite as much as the rest of us.

SB: Wow, that’s very sweet of you. It truly is an honour to be part of so many people’s childhoods, an honour to be the first voice of Lara – such an icon – and I look forward hugely to hearing Nathan’s music in the future. It’s just incredible to be a tiny part of something so globally adored. Something I treasure and certainly don’t take for granted. Thank you so much.

the tomb raider suite logo

 

 

You can keep up with the most up to date information about production of The Tomb Raider Suite as well as the Kickstarter beginning May 26th at the official website, as well as by following Nathan McCree on Twitter @nrpmccree.

/BCG

Disclaimer: I was not compensated, nor made a promise of any promotional materials, in exchange for this interview. All opinions are my own. I make no money if you click any of the links here, and have no official affiliation with The Tomb Raider Suite Kickstarter campaign. Photos are official head shots used by permission. Title photo & all other photos are credited fully to Nathan McCree & used with permission. 

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