Chris Hülsbeck is a composer – for very special music. He designs soundtracks for video games and is one of the most successful composers worldwide in this field. In an interview, the man from Kassel explains why it used to be incredibly complicated.
Music not only plays an important role in films, it is also essential for video games. Because without music, a video game lacks an emotional basissays Games composer Chris Hülsbeck. The North Hessian has set games like “Turrican”, “Giana Sisters” or “Star Wars Rogue Squadron” to music and is one of the most successful game composers worldwide.
Hülsbeck originally comes from Kassel. The 53-year-old now lives in the USA and has his own production company there. He began his career as a composer for video games more than thirty years ago – back then with the legendary Commodore C64 home computer. His works are now even performed by orchestras.
Games and music at the B3
Chris Hülsbeck is the spokesman for the B3 Biennial of Movement Image.
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In the hessenschau.de interview, he explains what significance music has for video games and how a soundtrack for games is created.
hessenschau.de: Mr. Hülsbeck, why do you think music is so essential for video games?
Chris Hülsbeck: There is an apt statement from the film director Steven Spielberg: “Music makes up 50 percent of the film.” It is the same with a video game. All the emotion basically comes from the music. Of course you have beautiful graphics these days and there is a lot of shooting. But if there is no music, then somehow you lack the emotional basis for the scenes that you play through. A video game is an audiovisual medium. And if the audio isn’t right, then the overall picture doesn’t work.
hessenschau.de: Composer for games music – that’s a very special profession. How did you get there?
Chris Hülsbeck: I discovered electronic music in my teenage years and really wanted a synthesizer to make music with. But my family couldn’t afford such expensive equipment. At some point I discovered the Commodore C64 home computer, which had a real synthesizer sound chip. And after a while I was able to buy this computer with a little savings.
Making music with it was a bit tricky in the beginning, because I had to learn programming first. But then, surprisingly, I won a competition with one of my songs on the C64. I then applied to a German video game company and was able to set several large games from the early days of German video game development to music. That’s how it started.
hessenschau.de: Back in the 80s, video game dubbing was a little different than it is today, wasn’t it?
Chris Hülsbeck: Absolutely. It used to be that you had to program the music with hexadecimal numbers. That was very complex and to be honest you were more of a programmer than a composer. Still, I had a very good talent for finding and composing very catchy melodies. This combination of programming and finding beautiful melodies ultimately helped me achieve my breakthrough. It’s easier these days. Game music is produced in the same way as any other music: in the studio. There you integrate the music as an audio file or it is played from the CD.
hessenschau.de: And how do you come up with the melodies?
Chris Hülsbeck: From the compositional point of view, it is very comparable to film music. You look at a game scene and see what fits the topic or the feeling. What is the game scene supposed to express? How should the player feel when he hears the music and plays this scene.
In the game “Turrican”, which I set to music, there are different game sequences where you have to play against a boss, for example. Then the level music is faded out and instead a very hectic music comes because you have to fight this opponent. And when you’ve done that, there’s a short jingle that should express: you’ve defeated your opponent.
hessenschau.de: How does that differ from film music compositions?
Chris Hülsbeck: The difference to film music lies in the technical area, because a game is interactive. That means, the music often has to adapt to the game. For example, if the player is walking in a certain direction, you have to find a way to tailor the music to that direction. And that while the game is running. That can be pretty tricky.
hessenschau.de: Is that what makes composing so exciting for you?
Chris Hülsbeck: That is definitely very exciting. But it can also be annoying at times. Because you really have to put yourself in the shoes of all situations in the game and then it’s a lot of work to bring all of these elements together and then, in the end, to incorporate them into the game. As a film or TV composer it’s often a little easier.
hessenschau.de: When did a games soundtrack really work for you? Are there certain criteria?
Chris Külsbeck: When the music is remembered. So when you hum the melody you heard in the game in the shower. Then as a composer I did my job right. The catchy tune must definitely be there.
hessenschau.de: You have set music to a number of cult games in your career. Is there a work that you are particularly proud of as a composer?
Chris Hülsbeck: Right at the front is the setting of the Turrican series. Not only the original games, which still have a huge fan base, but also the fact that we recorded this composition with an 80-man orchestra. This is really a lifelong dream that has come true for me. And I owe that to my fans, who made the project possible through crowdfunding.
hessenschau.de: What composition are you currently working on?
Chris Hülsbeck: At the moment I am concentrating on my fans and doing so-called “royalty-free music”. This is music that anyone can use freely, provided I support me with a monthly amount of money that I can determine. I compose a new piece every month. There are many different styles and hopefully there will be something for each of my fans. They can then use my compositions for YouTube, in their own games or for other things.
hessenschau.de: Could you imagine composing music for films one day?
Chris Hülsbeck: It’s very difficult to get into the film music industry. But who knows, maybe someday one of my fans will make a Hollywood film and then hire me for the soundtrack.
The interview was conducted by Sophia Luft.
Broadcast: hr-info, 09.10.2020, 10:15 o’clock