By Bob Gourley | Originally published in 1995
Ever since he first emerged in the early 80’s, Thomas Dolby has been a driving force in the progression of electronic music. With now classic songs like “She Blinded Me With Science,” “Europa and the Pirate Twins” and “Hyperactive,” he managed to eliminate the cold edge of electronically produced music and make it work in a pop format. While he continues to make his own music, Dolby’s career has branched out considerably over the years, first with film music and now video game soundtracks. Recently, he also provided the musical score to The Gate to the Minds Eye,” a video of computer animation.
Dolby knew from when he was a teenager that he wanted to work in a creative field, but wasn’t sure at first if he wanted to be a director, actor, writer, or musician.
“I kind of fell into music because it didn’t require a lot of entry qualifications,” he said. “I was very pleased to find that once I had records out music videos were starting to happen, so I directed some of my own music videos and got to experiment in other areas of expression”
While the technology wasn’t nearly as advanced as it is today, Dolby didn’t feel limited at the time. He says that people thought electronic music was a novelty, so he felt it was his role to show them its potential.
‘I think it’s pretty ironic really. If you could go through my trash bin from the early 80’s, you’d find all those bleeps and blips,” he explains, referring to the early pieces of analog gear that are favorites in creating current techno and ambient music. ” I was desperate really for people not to accuse me of coldness. It was taboo.”
Even though technology has been a key component in all his music, Dolby still uses the piano as his main songwriting tool. Dolby will wait until he has a strong picture of how a song will sound before using the electronics to make it happen. Otherwise, he finds himself “instantly drawn into that analytical way of thinking” that gets in the way of creativity.
Dolby has scored the films “Gothic” and “Fever Pitch” in addition to writing songs for “Howard The Duck.” Compared to the other areas he works in, he dislikes film because of the lack of freedom composers usually have.
“You can spend days writing one little theme for a love scene, and then the love scene has to go so it’s on the cutting room floor,” he explains. “And the studio owns it, so it’s kind of tough. When you’re working on a game, the team is smaller and the budget is smaller, you tend to be left to your own devices more.”
Though he doesn’t have anything lined up right now, Dolby is interested in doing more film work in the future. With studios negotiating for the movie rights to such games as “Myst” and “Doom,” his experience in the computer field has led to increased interest from film makers.
“It’s really hard because it looks good on paper but at the end of the day it’s not something you want to be involved in,” says Dolby on choosing film projects. “It makes me appreciate how lucky I am with my records, that I can just have this vision and a year later its in the stores on the shelves. I really appreciate that freedom, which in a movie you just never have.”
One thing that Dolby does look for in a script is lots of exterior landscape shots, as that’s where the music is noticed the most.
Dolby got involved with the “Gate to the Mind’s Eye” video after meeting the director at a screening of the series’ last installment . He had always been a fan of artists working in the field of computer animation, and felt that it was possible to tell a story with just images, music, and sound without dialogue.
“I felt that the tempo of the one that I saw was very MTV,” says Dolby on his approach to the project. “The pace was really like watching a series of videos. I felt that it needed room to breath, and some of the best material we had was long and drawn out.”
Starting to write music for video games presented Dolby with a challenge, because there weren’t any tools available for creating truly interactive scores. Unlike films, the stories don’t unfold in a concrete, linear fashion, so the music has to be manipulated from within the game. With his company, Head Space, Dolby has worked to create the software necessary for composing interactive sound tracks.
Dolby’s latest creation was the sound track to the recently released “Cyberia.” Next up is “Double Switch,” a Sega CD game that stars Debbie Harry. Dolby has three other titles in the works, and his company is also starting to develop its own games.
Game companies are starting to realize the importance of music and bringing in composers earlier in the development process. Dolby says one of the biggest problems with game music in the past is that “everyone has a cousin who can do music” and the game developers weren’t paying enough attention to special considerations the interactive nature brings about.
“More and more now, most of the game designers know what I do and they tend to come to us a little bit earlier,” explains Dolby. “I think everybody at this point is looking for a competitive edge, and they’re already taking all the short cuts that they can in terms of graphics and they know that maybe I might have a key to give them advantage in the audio. So they tend to come to me earlier in the production process, which is a very helpful thing. If you leave the music until the end, there’s no memory left, no budget left, no time left.”
Dolby admits that the technology is still limiting when it comes to video and computer games, but each new platform is better than the last. And with better equipment, there is more room for innovative interactive use of music.
“The thing that interests me is that in electronic music, MIDI is a series on 1’s and O’s. Of you’re skill is as a keyboard player, then you hook up a MIDI keyboard and that’s the controller you actually use to play the notes on,” says Dolby. “Or if could be drum pads, or a wind controller. What’s happening with the games is that if your skill is running around a corridor shooting NAZIs, then in a way I’m turning that skill into a MIDI controller. Instead of a keyboard it’s actions, like opening up a door or loading up a gun or blowing up a few aliens. Technology is empowering non-musical individuals to make music with skills that they have.”
Right now Dolby is dedicating most of his time to his company, Headspace. In addition to creating music for interactive entertainment, the company develops tools to make that type of composition easier. Dolby doesn’t have any current plans for his own music, but it’s not because he’s turning his back on it.
“I kind of figure that will always be there, but I feel there’s really an important role for me in all of the stuff that’s going on,” he says. “It’s especially great with Head Space because it’s kind of like forming a band, I can bring on board some of my friends that I think are talented. On some of the projects we work on I write a couple of themes and supervise everything but get one of my friends to do the nuts of bolts work. And that enables them to get a track record, and also means that we can get involved with more projects rather than one at time.”See all interviews →