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Interview: Howard Drossin's Splatterhouse Soundtracks, Original and Butchered

In this interview, film/TV/video game composer and former Sega music director Howard Drossin talks with Gamasutra about the making of the original and remixed albums for Namco Bandai's recent Splatterhouse remake.
[In this interview, film/TV/video game composer and former Sega music director Howard Drossin talks with Gamasutra contributor Jeriaska about the making of the original and remixed albums for Namco Bandai's recent Splatterhouse remake.] Howard Drossin has been composing music for videogames since the mid-'90s, when he served as music director for Sega of America. There he wrote original music for Sonic & Knuckles, Comix Zone and The Ooze, among other titles. Since he left Sega to work as an independent composer, Drossin has worked on the Vigilante 8 series and such titles as Baldur's Gate: Throne of Bhaal, in addition to scoring films and producing albums. More recently he scored Afro Samurai and Splatterhouse, the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 console titles by Namco Bandai Games. Splatterhouse (2010) has recently seen an original soundtrack release through Bandcamp in two parts, titled "Volume 1: Metal" and "Volume 2: Cut Scenes, Ambient and Retro." In addition, a 13-track remix compilation, "Butchered," by various artists, has been released for free. The author of this article has contributed liner notes for the remix album, as he did with Spanish developer Locomalito's free Hydorah Arranged Tracks album, which features a number of the same international guest artists. Grounded in metal, the original score to Splatterhouse also incorporates orchestral cues, as well as nods to the classic game themes by the composers of the original Namco title, Katsuro Tajima and Yoshinori Kawamoto. In this interview, we hear from the musician on the making of the original and remixed Splatterhouse albums.
Over the years you have worked broadly in both the game and film industries. Being familiar with both, would you say there are aspects of working in games that provide unique opportunities for experimentation? Howard Drossin: I really enjoy working on games. Perhaps I've just been very lucky, but I've always been given a tremendous amount of creative freedom. The schedules tend to be longer, which allows more time to research the project and develop the sound. Game companies tend to have fewer people involved in the approval process, and their input is more general, allowing the composer's vision to come across more strongly. In my experience, developers are often more open to experimentation and are eager to try to create something different and unique. Listening to the classic Splatterhouse games, you get the sense that the background music was being inspired by horror movie soundtracks. Which styles of music were you interested in incorporating into the reboot of the game series? drossin_composertn.jpgIn this latest incarnation, Namco Bandai wanted to play up the visceral, raw aggression and unrelenting violence in the game. No genre of music does that better than metal. I didn't want to completely abandon the original game's 80's-influenced horror music, so I referenced that scary, over-the-top orchestral style. For the retro sidescroller puzzle areas, I revisited the Genesis-style sounds from years ago. For Afro Samurai, hip-hop and Spaghetti Westerns were prominent musical influences. What led you to feel that you could do justice to the very different musical category of heavy metal on Splatterhouse? I think being a guitar player gives me an advantage in these mixed-genre scores because a lot of composers who write for orchestra have a purely orchestral sensibility. They don't have a background in punk, metal, or hip hop and can't get nasty. I'd been playing in bands for years, many of them metal, and I like turning up the volume and making some noise. When I was younger, I was eager to shed the band stuff because I wanted to prove that I was an “orchestral guy". Now I'm grateful to have spent that time in bands, touring and making records because those experiences have helped me so much on my fusion projects, such as Afro Samurai and Splatterhouse. You play guitar on the original soundtrack to Splatterhouse. Do you find that recording your own performances is something that adds to the enjoyment of creating music for a game? Playing on my own soundtracks is enjoyable when I do it well. (laughs) I think it enables me to express the music in the way I want it to be done. I'm not the best guitar player out there, but there are instances, especially on Splatterhouse and Afro, where a studio player would have been too neat and clean with his playing. For me, when music becomes too slick, it loses its edge. If you listen to an early Rolling Stones record, it's out of tune all over the place, but it sounds bad ass. It's human and raw. During pivotal moments of the game, you introduce startling audio cues. What was the mood you were looking to create in these instances? The stingers in Splatterhouse are modeled after old-school, B-movie horror films. I wanted to make players jump out of their seat. They’re meant to be played as loud as possible and they hit hard. I really like how they work when combined with metal. There are sidescrolling segments in the new Splatterhouse that harken back to the 16-bit game consoles. How does the music for these segments make use of your background as a game composer of this era? For the side-scrolling levels, Namco wanted to pay homage to the old Genesis games both in look and sound. Obviously, I am familiar with that sound because I battled with that chip a lot. It was an ironic thing to be asked to do, since game composers back then were wishing we had the technology of today. In those days, you had few voices to work with, and one mono 8-bit digital track usually was used for a drum beat. I tried to stick to those parameters to give the tracks that particular vibe. It really reminded me of the old days, though I did have to break a few rules here and there. (laughs) It's actually a good exercise. You can never be guilty of over-orchestrating things because you just don’t have that option. Did it interest you on the remix album to hear other musicians’ interpretations of your compositions? Honestly, I was both humbled and flattered that other musicians wanted to participate. I think everyone did a great job and I enjoyed hearing all the different approaches. I didn't know what to expect, but I have to say that the experience was really rewarding and I'm grateful to everyone who participated and helped to make it a reality. Does it also interest you to introduce a broader audience to these musicians' work? Absolutely, it's one of the main reasons for the remix album, to offer the opportunity to introduce other composers and get a sense of what they are about. Each track is completely different and it's cool that people from all over the world are represented. It really does bring a unique style to each one of the tracks. Images courtesy of Namco Bandai Games and Howard Drossin. Photo by Jessica Drossin. For more information on the music of Howard Drossin, see the artist's official Facebook page.

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