Interview with Dan Wentz - VolitionWatch

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NOTE: This preview was originally posted in 2000 by Dynamo on VolitionWatch, which is no longer available.

Dynamo sat down with Red Faction's main man behind the music and sound of the game, Dan Wentz. Dan has also participated actively on the Summoner, Freespace series, and Descent series teams. What's even more cool is that he gave us an _exclusive_ MP3 for you to download called "Trilogy".

  • NOTE from RF Wiki Admins: This track is on the Red Faction OST.

How are you gentlemen!!

(Looks behind him) Oh, me! Well I'm doing just fine, thanks for asking. The project is winding down, switching gears to the PC version actually, but the meat of the work is behind me now. Spring is in the air, just bought a new ride and I can't wait for some vacation time! I haven't lost my license yet, so I must be doing something right.

You've been doing music work for Volition/Parallax for some time now, making you one of the veterans around the office. Do you get special privileges, like making Todd Miller get your coffee in the morning?

That's not a bad idea. After all, my office is furthest away from the kitchen. I'll consider this for the Volition suggestion box. Seriously, I think the biggest advantage we "veterans" gain is simply acquired experience. Time is literally money, and many pitfalls are avoided through experience. Having been a part of three titles, it's very rewarding to see how things constantly evolve and improve. But the real privilege is to be given an opportunity to make a living at what I love to do most.

Where do you get your inspiration for the music you make?

Ideally, the game itself provides a portion of inspiration. Certainly enough to get me started. Although in a constant state of development, this is provided early on by conceptual art, level specs, scripts and storyboards. But what really drives me as a composer is simply living life. My faith in God, relationships with others, everyday experiences and challenges. They all fuel me as I sit down to write. I like to take walks or drive around for no other reason than to develop the music I hear in my head.

I have many influences musically. Most recently I've really been soaking up a lot to Dream Theater. I swear those guys had to have played Descent at one point in their lives. I prefer technique and style to what I notice being passed around lately; what I like to call "pissed off at my parents" rock. My all time favorite group is without question, Pink Floyd. Orange's Edit: My favorite artist of all time (Billy Corgan) inducted Pink Floyd in to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.. he used to be a "pissed off at my parents" artist :) Yet the two individual influences that I keep going back to are Peter Gabriel and Danny Elfman.

What kind of programs/mixers do you use to make your music?

  • PC
    • Cakewalk
    • Sonar
    • Sound Forge
    • Vegas
    • Event Gina
    • SB Live
  • Mac
    • Pro Tools
    • Digital Performer
  • My current gear
    • Roland XV-5080, JP-8080, JV-2080, RS-5, PC-200mkII
    • Emu E4, Audity 2000
    • MemoryMoog Plus
    • Motu Midi Express XT
    • Mackie 1402VLZ
    • Alesis RA-100
    • Event 20/20's
  • Sample Lib's I regularly employ
    • Symphony of Voice
    • Advanced Orchestra
    • Percussive Adventures

You've worked on countless music tracks for various Volition games. Which one of the tracks is your favorite and why?

Ok, that's a tough one… like asking which child is my favorite. Without a doubt, the music in Freespace 2 is especially close to my heart, since it was composed during the most challenging part of my life. At that time my personal life was in major transition, and motivation was sometimes hard to come by. But I prevailed. In fact, I believe I became a better person and musician for the experience.

A lot of my soul was poured into those tracks and I love going back and listening to it. If I had to pick one, it'd probably be "Revelation" or the closing cutscene score. I love the dynamics employed in both. Ask me the same question in a year, and it will probably include some of the RF tunes. But it's too soon to pick one from that lot. The recent stuff really hasn't sunk in with me yet. Also, there are just too many to choose from!

What was the switch from MIDI music to Digital waves and such like? Was there a lot of difficulty in switching over?

I sense some confusion in terminology here, allow me to clarify.

MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) is still at the heart of every song I write and always will be. Every instrument's note, even most of the drumbeats you hear are bits of samples sequenced with midi. A midi file really boils down to a set of instructions. Telling which device should play when, with what sound/instrument and most importantly how they should be played; control messages that dictate a channels, pitch, pan, volume, modulation, velocity, filter cutoff, resonance, effects type/level, etc.

The term general midi refers to a standardized list of equivalent 128 patches; though some extensions have appeared in the form of GS, XG, and most recently GM2. These exist in nearly all major brands of computer sound cards. The inherited advantage of GM is small file size, which translated to low CPU usage, and the freedom of choice with respect to sound cards used to play the songs back. But there in lies the biggest drawback with GM and it's expansions; their dependency on the original hardware used to compose the song.

There have been many excellent sound cards offering general midi support over the years. But the overriding problem is the subjective differences in tone, timbre and mix of similar instruments for their respective patch sets. So a midi file written on a sound canvas would sound noticeably different than an awe64 for example. Wave table abilities, like sound fonts are becoming more available, but I think it's a bit late.

Today, we have at our disposal more powerful hardware, new developments in compression codecs and the convention of direct x, giving us the ability to stream digital audio at higher sample rates than ever before possible in games. Currently, all music in RF is 44k stereo, streamed directly from disk. This offers many advantages. The most obvious being (for better or worse) the end user gets to hear the music exactly as it was intended. Before, this was only possible through redbook audio (CD) but delays in spin up / seek time kept it from being more widely used.

The only switch for me was really in terms of exposure to audio production. Learning how and when to effectively utilize equalization, compression, normalization etc so numerous audio tracks could all be mixed down with everything I wanted heard. Mastering is something I'm constantly learning more about. For the few that really know their stuff, it's a fine art.

I know you did a lot of level creation for the Descent series, especially multiplayer maps. Stadium, Vampyro, and (correct me if I'm wrong) a few of the Descent I Total Chaos maps. Are you working on anything for Red Faction, either at work or on your free time?

You stand corrected; I joined Parallax shortly after D1 was released.

To be honest, I haven't really gone there in a while. I believe "Hive" was my last of many multiplayer levels for Descent. Don't get me wrong. I loved doing those levels, I really did. But it requires a lot of time and effort, (just ask my ex-wife) and just wasn't as rewarding for me as composing music. I would like to design some more on my free time someday. But we have many excellent designers here and I go where I'm needed most. Um… perhaps I need to update my bio. But no doubt, that would be fun to revisit someday. I did have a fair amount of say in the development of our editor, so it'd be a damn shame if I didn't take advantage of it. I think this is one thing I really like about my job. I get to exercise a lot of different aspects of the game.

How did you land your job at Volition?

Well, I my first glimpse of Descent was a work-in-progress demo at the 95 CES show in Chicago. Through at the time it had a crude keyboard-only control scheme, I was immediately drawn into it. And once it hit the shelves I was blown away by the attention to midi support. At that time I would have never believed that I would be given the opportunity to contribute to its successor.

Later that year, I met Mike Kulas through a mutual friend, heard they were hiring, and we set up an interview. At the time, I had just quit my band, and had outgrown my position as a CAD designer at an engineering firm in Chicago. So I was more than willing to have a shot at tailoring those abilities towards a much more rewarding experience, working for Parallax Software. After all, I was notoriously known for playing games after hours where I worked before, and loved to write music in my own time. It was really the next natural step for me, one that I'll never forget.

Ok… the goose bumps have subsided now.

According to your bio, you served a brief stint in the GTA? What was that like? Did you get to shoot any of those pesky Shivans?

Had they allowed that, it would have been a much shorter war. But unfortunately, a support ship witnessed me trying to waste my training instructor and I was sentenced to community service, where I was responsible for directing the cantina band.

Tribes 2 or Halo? (I had to ask)

Depends… which one has a PyroGX?

What's in your pockets right now?

My keys, a wallet and a few balls of lint.

Do you have any words for anyone who wants to break in to the gaming industry?

We need you! Much of this industry is propelled by the attention and dedication of developers and fans alike. Without one the other doesn't get too far. Get as much experience with computers as they relate to your skills. If you're into music, learn everything you can stomach about the technology side. Although experience in programming synthesizers is important, exposure to using a dedicated sampler is enormously useful, for both for flexible composition and sound design.

And as you play games, think about ways they can be improved upon, both on game play and presentation. But a word of warning, once bitten, you'll never be able to go back to a "normal job".

Thanks for the opportunity to do this interview. I hope you've found it equally entertaining and informative.

Mad props to Dan Wentz for the interview and the exclusive MP3.