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Exclusive Interview: Halo Spartan Strike Composer Tom Salta

Like 2013’s Halo Spartan Assault, the arcadey, top-down, twin-stick shooter Halo Spartan Strike (iOS, PC, Windows Phones) features the music of Tom Salta. Who, not coincidentally, has also worked on Halo: Combat Evolved: Anniversary and the Halo 2 Anniversary part of Halo: The Master Chief Collection. But while this makes it seem like the people behind the Halo games like Salta, in talking to him about his work on Strike, it seems the feeling is mutual.

Tom Salta Halo Spartan Strike him

When you started to work on music for Halo Spartan Strike, did you start from scratch, or did you reuse any of the music you wrote for ?

Most all of the music in Halo Spartan Strike is unique to the game. Since this was a new game with new locations, new vehicles, new enemies, and improved graphics, we all agreed that Halo Spartan Strike deserved a brand new score.

Though I did use one cue that I originally created for Halo Spartan Assault but couldn’t find a home for, “Bring a Bigger Gun.” It had a little too much of a “high-tech” sci-fi feel for Halo Spartan Assault, and didn’t feel right once I was able to see all the maps. While I was working on the Halo Spartan Strike score, I accidentally found it towards the end of the scoring process.

When you told the developers what you wanted to do, what was their reaction?

We were all in sync from the very beginning. Like with that cue from Halo Spartan Assault, the audio director, Paul Lipson and I agreed that it worked perfectly for one of the promethean levels. Also, since we had such success with the first game being well received by the fans and winning a G.A.N.G. [Game Audio Network Guild] award for Best Original Soundtrack, the dev team and the audio director trusted my judgment.

Given what you did, was doing the music for Halo Spartan Strike easier than Halo Spartan Assault, more difficult…?

Building upon my experience with Halo Spartan Assault, scoring the music to Halo Spartan Strike was an evolutive process and, in that sense, it was easier as I was not starting from scratch trying to establish the magic formula for a top-down shooter-style Halo game. That’s the part that took the most time and experimentation on Halo Spartan Assault.

How much of Halo Spartan Strike did you get to see before you started working on it? Did you get to play it at all?

Initially, I only got to see a few incomplete levels and I was not able to play the game. As I got further along in the scoring process, they would send over updated level captures, which allowed me to start deciding which music worked best on various maps, and fine-tuning the music to fit the environments.

Aside from Halo Spartan Strike and Halo Spartan Assault, you’ve also worked on Halo: Combat Evolved: Anniversary Edition and the Halo 2 part of the Halo: The Master Chief Collection. But given that those latter two games were remakes of older games, and they had music already, what did you actually do for them?

The scores for Halo: CE Anniversary and Halo: 2 Anniversary were lovingly crafted, note-for-note recreations and reinterpretations of the original scores. My role on the team was mainly to focus on all the percussion and a good portion of the non-orchestral musical cues. You can really hear the difference when you go back and compare the new scores with the original. It has the same authentic feel as the originals, but with current production and mix.

Tom Salta Halo Spartan Strike Halo 2 cover

The original Halo games are known for having a very distinctive and evocative score. When you’ve started work on any of the Halo games you’ve done, do you go back to that original Halo score for inspiration?

The original Halo score is part of my musical DNA. It’s part of what inspired me to do what I do now as a composer working in visual media. So I really didn’t need to back to listen to it before I started work on Halo Spartan Strike since I had recently worked on recreating the music on two Anniversary games. I already have a deep understanding of what Halo music is supposed to sound like.

Halo 5: Guardians is coming out October 27th. They already have a composer working on it, but at any point did you say to the people at 343 Industries, “Y’know, I’d really be into doing the music for Halo 5…”?

I have a lot of respect for 343. They have a huge responsibility to preserve and evolve the Halo universe that Bungie created, which is no easy task. There’s no denying my outspoken affection for Halo, and I’m sure it has reached the decision makers at 343. All I can say is that the more the fans say what they want, the more 343 will listen.

How does your work on the Halo series compare to what you’ve done on such games as Ghost Recon: Future Soldier, Prince Of Persia: The Forgotten Sands, and the Just Dance games? And I’m referring more along artistic lines than working with the developers.

From my perspective, there is no trace of similarity between any of the music for those games…and that’s completely intentional. When I approach a game franchise, each one needs to have a unique voice, its own sonic signature. I want people to be able to close their eyes, listen to a few seconds of music, and immediately know what game it’s from.

Have you ever played a game you did the music for and realize there were things you would’ve done differently, but only realized it because you were playing the final game, not an early version or just watching videos of it?

Absolutely. In fact, scoring the music to Halo Spartan Strike was a perfect example of how I decided to change my approach based upon things I noticed while playing the first game after it was released.

For example, one of the things that I noticed after playing Halo Spartan Assault is that I felt some of the big, heavy cues that sounded great outside the game actually competed a little too much with the constant sounds of guns and explosions. This forced them to mix some of the music in the game a little lower than I would have preferred. So, in an effort to avoid that trap with Halo Spartan Strike, I captured a few minutes of sound effects from the first game, and played them in the background as I composed the music. It immediately helped my perspective and allowed me to create music that breathed a bit more, complementing the sound effects rather than competing with them. Because of this, you might notice the music in Halo Spartan Strike being slightly louder and more noticeable overall.

Your score for Halo Spartan Strike is being released as a soundtrack album. But when you were putting that together, did you edit your music in any way to make it work more like a song?

That’s one of the challenges when you’re creating the soundtrack for a game. We all want the soundtrack to sound great on its own, but the key purpose of the music is to support the gameplay. I always keep the soundtrack in the back of my mind while scoring a game, but I don’t let it compromise my decisions to create the best music possible for the game itself.

I predicted that some of the tracks like “With her Whisper” and “Mombasa Arrival” would stand out on the soundtrack. “Mombasa Arrival,” in particular, was difficult to place in the game during gameplay as it’s very emotional and quiet, but it felt great as a menu theme.

No, I meant when you were putting the soundtrack together, did you change anything about the music to make it more of a song someone could listen to?

In order to be true to the score, the music is structured as it appears in the game. That being said, I made sure that all the tracks had proper endings so the music didn’t just cut off at the loop points…no one would want to hear that.

Tom Salta Halo Spartan Strike cover:dropbox

Finally, what is your favorite Halo game and why? And I’m asking more about the game itself, not the music.

The original Halo CE from 2001 will always hold a special place in my heart. That was the game that inspired me the most to go into scoring music for games. The story is amazing and it immersed me into a new world and new characters unlike anything else I had played before.


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