Interview with Frank Klepacki

Frank Klepaki, composer, producer and sound designer, has a career spanning 25 years. He has worked on game titles for top developers and publishers including Lucasarts, Electronic Arts, Sega, Ubi Soft, Disney, Hasbro and is most known for his score on the Command and Conquer franchise.   


Klepaki initially got into composing in high school.  “I was already a professional drummer and I realised after jamming with friends in original bands, that I had a tough time contributing / communicating my song ideas. It made me want to go and learn how to play other instruments such as guitar and keyboards.  I got some early experience tracking in recording studios, and that inspired me to get a 4-track recorder and start doing my own demos to start with.  Sound design came later after I got some experience working on games, taking notes from my manager and colleagues on best methods at the time.


Klepacki was fortunate enough to get introduced to the idea of working on games while still in high school through a part time summer job at Westwood Studios in Las Vegas, as a video game tester.  “As a teenager, naturally I was distracted by all the other cool stuff going on there – I was inspired by seeing how games are made and how all the departments worked.  It planted the seed in my mind as to how I could have more of a role in this.  That led me to talking with the audio director and sharing with him what I could do and my interests, and he gave a me a trial period of time to prove myself before eventually offering me a full time job in the audio dept after I graduated.”


The project ‘End of Nations’ by Petroglyph, was the largest project undertaking he’d taken on. The massive multiplayer game took 4 years of his life and hard work.  “Serious money was spent - a barrage of content, orchestra recording, top tier voice over, thousands of sounds, an endless well of data and assets to manage and track and test, (that was the toughest part with a game of this size) and unfortunately it ended up shelved by the publisher before release.”


Klepacki got to be part of the pioneering era of game development, and that meant taking advantage of the technology available and finding clever ways to use it as it pertained to audio and music. “In the early 90s we had to use fm synthesis based audio cards for the method of playback, everything was midi, and the number of monophonic channels available for me to use was 6.  So the video game music I did at that time, I constantly programmed instrument changes on all the channels, created my own fm based instruments, and created the scores in a way they could have transitions and blend together dynamically during gameplay.  By the mid 90s we were getting into the first capabilities of audio playback, which meant we could stream wav files and start making recorded music with quality synths and instruments available to us, and we were among the first games to take advantage of that.  Along with that, the kind of composing I was doing was tapping into contemporary influences which gave those games an edge and current relevance at the time which really resonated with the gaming audience.” 


He now finds himself as Audio Director for Petroglyph and is responsible for all things audio that goes into the games; music, sound design, voice over, directing talent, and the technical implementation of it all. “I work with the team on the best ways to integrate audio to the type of game we’re doing.  I got the job when Petroglyph was newly formed after Westwood Studios was consolidated. The first project they got to work on was a Star Wars game, and the founders whom I’d worked with before at Westwood knew I was a die-hard Star Wars fan who already knew that IP expertly, and would be a perfect fit to head that up.”


Klepacki had always wanted to do a live show of the Command & Conquer music. “I had guest appeared with symphonies now and again which were great live experiences, but I really thought the music would suit having a live rock-band format for a whole concert.  I just never really knew where to tap into that audience, and where I would do it – seemed like too much of a niche thing to me at first.  I’d heard about MagFest through my friend Tony Dickinson who formed the Tiberian Sons, (named after one of the Command & Conquer games as they are fans as well) and they had already played their own show doing a variety of intense versions of game covers which I saw, and was impressed by.  After a couple other friends / peers told me how great this festival was, I made the decision to put my show together and ask the Tiberian Sons to join me to perform it.  Couldn’t have been happier with how it all turned out, and was pleasantly surprised how large of a draw we were.”


Being a multi-instrumentalist, composer, producer, means he can do many kinds of jobs, but it can be quite the investment. “I have used Cubase as my DAW ever since it first came to the PC in the early 90s.  My interface is an RME Fireface ufx+ with their 12mic additional preamp unit.  I also alternate with tube pres if I want that kind of sound, especially for drums.  My DW drumkit is always fully miked up ready to track with at any time.  I use the Aguilar Tone Hammer 500 bass amp with their SL410 cabinet, which is the most accurate bass tone I’ve ever gotten.  I use a Rivera Knucklehead reverb guitar amp, with an Empress Heavy pedal for distortion.  I’ve use Yamaha MSP10 monitors, and Audio Technica mics & headphones on everything.  I have my own signature model Tagg guitar and bass I use the majority of the time, though I have a couple others I reach for if I need other characters.   As far as VSTs go, I use a combination of Native Instruments Komplete, Cinesamples, 8dio, Omnisphere, and various other synths and libraries sprinkled in.  I actually produced a drum VST called Shreddage Drums made by Impact Soundworks.” 


“Back in the day, I used to use racks and racks of hardware, but now that so much of it is in the computer, the hardware you do use needs to really count. You have to know what you’re listening for, and know why things sound the way they do depending on your signal chain. Outside of game work, I record my own solo  albums and other projects.  My latest solo album is releasing now, called “Quarantine Sessions”, the idea that it’s an album made entirely during the pandemic, since no touring was happening!  Got to put all that gear to good use.”


“If I’m recording in the field with multiple mics, I use a Sound Devices MixPre recorder, or sometimes, if I’m out and about or on vacation I’ll take a simple Tascam portable stereo recorder to capture some unique sounds I come across.  I move the mics around until I find what I think their sweet spot is.  I always record sound effects in 24 / 96 so that if I pitch manipulate anything if won’t sound artifacted.  I often draw from a huge collection of pro sound libraries I’ve invested in over the years and manipulate and mix several elements, processing, and sounds together to create what goes into the games.  I typically set up a Cubase session for all the in-game sound design assets and create markers for each asset that then gets bounced individually and then I’ll run a batch normalization process on all of them afterward before I put them in the game.  Then I set up the sound events and assign them to internal presets within the game playback - or busses if you will, and mix the game that way.  If I’m sound designing for post-production like on a cinematic sequence, then that’s a whole other session, where I’m doing a ton of tracks of not only sound design, but mixing, panning, setting up for surround, etc.  You also have to do multiple versions of the same movie for different foreign languages, and match up the timing of the dialog as best you can.”


When composing for games there can be many challenges. “First it’s about figuring out what genre(s) to try out and what kind of mood or emotion we want to convey, and for what subject matter.  Then we decide if that fits when we try it out.  The game design informs everything, but seeing it come together and getting a sense of the pacing also helps direct the composition as the game develops.  Decisions on how it’s to be implemented is important, and if there’s a larger budget, than orchestra recording also can come into play, or on a smaller scale, perhaps some solo musicians or voices to add a more organic element.  The main thing is that it’s not linear like film or tv.  The player is generally in control of their actions which then determines the way the game progresses.  So keeping that in mind presents challenges in how to create the flexibility of how scores are used (or not used) based on that.  Sometimes cues are level / location based, as a short intro, a loop, or full-length piece that eventually goes silent to reveal sound effects and ambience.  Sometimes they are event based, such as when the player triggers a cue based on something they interact with.  There can be varying intensity that is layered with stems that fade in and out based on the encounter or threat level the player faces.  These and many more decisions are made based on the type of game and how it is meant to feel to the player.”


As for his favourite project to date, it has to be Star Wars: Empire at War. “Those are my favourite films of all time, and I knew the audio and music like the back of my hand.  So to being able to create in that universe on a game was the highlight of my career.  I would gladly return to that IP in any capacity if the opportunity came around again.   Adding new music to the new places we explored, creating new sound effects in the spirit of the films, and helping direct voice over was all the biggest joy for me.” 


Klepacki has certainly had some challenges throughout his career and the biggest has been knowing what he is worth, and what he is willing to do or not depending on a variety of factors.  “There are things you need to learn by going through it and making mistakes so that you understand what went wrong and take that experience to heart.  When I first had to go freelance at one point for example, I learned a lot about how to conduct myself, how to be patient, and how to persevere.  To continually put myself out there and keep in touch with people and expect nothing in return.  Just be genuine in business relationships, and eventually things come around.”


So where does he get his inspiration? “Getting back to the Star Wars thing, starting with John Williams of course – that is the first significant musical impact I remember as a kid.  When the first movie came out, I knew nothing about it other than it seemed cool.  The first thing you see is the Star Wars logo fading to space with this triumphant piece of music that has since become iconic.  I knew right then I was hooked by the music alone!  Have since appreciated all his scores I’ve heard across many other films, and of course it was a dream come true getting to add my own music and sounds to the games.”  


“In line with that, Ben Burtt, sound designer for Lucasfilm.  He created all the iconic sound effects of Star Wars and I became obsessed with knowing as much about his process of creating them, which I would be inspired to apply to my own sound design efforts later.”


“Vince DiCola, composer most known for Rocky IV, and Transformers the movie 1986 - His blend of prog rock, synth soundtrack pioneering, and musicality was also an instant inspiration.  Was honoured to eventually become friends with him, as well as perform and collaborate together.” 


“And Sly & The Family Stone – legendary funk band since the late 60s, first time I saw their performance on the Woodstock concert movie, as a young drummer, I knew that’s what I wanted to do someday.  I’ve been The Family Stone’s touring drummer for several years now.  Couldn’t be more grateful.  There is a pattern here… dreams can come true!” 


As for how he sees the game industry changing over the next 5 years, Klepacki believes that its down the the technological advancements. “Technology usually pushes all things forward in the evolution.  Whether its new consoles, VR, new tools for immersion, speakers put into game controllers, hardware or software that simulates environments better, audio is integrated and adapted to these new technologies, and it’s then up to the developers to take advantage of what these tools can do.  It’s our imaginations that create experiences that people find fun and memorable.  Audio is always supporting the overall vision and content of the game, no matter what new way there is to do something.  I see software tools making more of the changes and improvements we see in the next five years, since the next gen consoles are already here – that hardware has established the foundation of what people do with the next 5 year cycle.”


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