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Music, Middle-earth, and chocolate: A Lord of the Rings Online recording session with composer Chance Thomas

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"I want more chocolate."

Chance Thomas is speaking to Ryan, the session guitarist on the other side of the glass. He's not asking for candy, though.

"I want a chocolate sound out of it," Thomas says. "It needs to be rich, dark…." He turns to me, seated on a couch along the wall. "What are those pointy things on a cactus?"

"Spines?" I venture.

"That's it!" Thomas exclaims. “There are no spines in this chocolate."

We're at Rotosonic Sound, a recording studio that looks more like an abandoned storage facility from the outside. It's located in a commercial area in suburban Salt Lake City, and if you haven't been there before, you'll have no chance of finding it.

But if you plan on playing Lord of the Rings Online or Dungeons & Dragons Online in the near future, you'll be hearing music that came to life right here, by way of composer Chance Thomas' brain…mixed metaphors and all.

 

Recording session

"The longer this session goes, the more esoteric my descriptions will be," Thomas warns. "But sometimes those are the only words I can use to explain what I hear."

Thomas is a veteran of the game industry, beginning with 1998's Quest for Glory 5: Dragon Fire and proceeding through a laundry list of licensed franchises, including King Kong, X-Men, Marvel Ultimate Alliance, and most notably the pantheon of non-movie-based Lord of the Rings titles. And despite the well-known film soundtracks in those series, Thomas says he'd rather work on their video-game counterparts.

"The thing I love about (writing music for) games is you have to think, 'How can I take this musical idea and give it 20 or 30 ways to express itself over time and across various kinds of dramatic interactions?'" Thomas says. "Because it’s not the same way every time."

While that might be game composition's biggest allure for Thomas, he says it's also his biggest challenge: coming up with unique musical cues that feel fresh, even after dozens of hours in the same area of an online role-playing game. The trick, he reveals, is to write each composition in "layers," so that different instrument tracks can be added or removed over time.

The score for the upcoming LotRO expansion

"You’ll come into an area and hear the full version of the song," Thomas says. "Then maybe the theme comes back with just the strings. Then that goes away, and the theme comes back with some improvised guitar. Then maybe a flute line. Those fragments keep you feeling like you're there, but it's not constantly hitting you over the head."

Writing for licensed media presents an even bigger challenge, especially when dealing with well-known properties with iconic musical themes. But Thomas says the key is capturing what he calls the "musical language of entertainment."

"Sometimes I'll give a presentation to a room of aspiring composers," Thomas says. "And I'll put up a still image from, say, Avatar. And I’ll say, 'All right, guys. What does it sound like?' And they’ll start kicking out ideas. We assemble a musical palette from whatever they've said. And then I say, 'So it should sound something like this?' And I play the track that I wrote. And it sounds exactly like what we all talked about."

Things get even dicier with such a revered property as J.R.R. Tolkien's masterpiece. Thomas says the only way he knows to do the material justice is to immerse himself in the series' lore. That includes heavily annotated maps of Middle-earth, reams of unpublished background info, and dog-eared and battered copies of the original works.

"I got a little…nerdy about it," Thomas admits.

So nerdy, in fact, that he actually created a musical "style guide" for his Lord of the Rings work, specifying which instruments and key signatures were appropriate for each individual race. He even insisted on finding those rare, ancient sounds mentioned or implied in the original text. Today's recording session, for example, included instruments like mandolins, bouzoukis (an elongated lute of Greek origin), and Hardanger fiddles.

Instruments used in LotRO recording session

"I love sound," Thomas says. "And I love nuances of sound. Every way you use an instrument will deliver something slightly different musically. The tasty stuff is in the nuance."

Thomas' commitment to authenticity is such that, when a collaborator presented him with a certain composition for the Shire region of a Lord of the Rings game, he had to reject it. His reasoning? The music featured a marimba, and "there are no marimbas in the Shire."

"That’s infamous," Thomas laughs. "That composer has never let me live that down. But if you know anything about Middle-Earth, that (fact) is obvious. So when that instrument showed up in his score, it was so dissonant to me."

The result of all that labor — and make no mistake, it's hard labor — is a score that sounds as real to the source material as the indelible melodies of the film trilogy, and perhaps even more organic due to the interactive nature of games. Accomplishing that feat, Thomas says, is the best part about his work.

"If Beethoven were alive today," he says, "he'd be a video-game composer. Because that's where the interesting stuff is happening."


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