The My Mac Interview – Chance Thomas

This month I had the pleasure of speaking with Chance Thomas. Not familiar with that name? Maybe his most recent bio will give you a hint of his background and how most of you are familiar with his work, if not his name.

Mr. Thomas is a multiple award-winning composer and music producer. His music has been broadcast to every television market in the United States, and across five continents. He has written and produced musical scores for domestic and foreign films, television shows and documentaries, interactive games, commercials, and theatrical productions. A marketing company recently reported that individuals from every zip code in America have a copy of Chance’s music in their home.

Chance has been honored by the Emmy Awards, Telly Awards, Addy Awards, Aurora Awards, and by other trade associations. His work and professional opinions have been featured in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Entertainment Weekly, Grammy Magazine, America On-Line, CNN, CNET, TheMacShow and other prominent media outlets. His client list includes such highly successful enterprises as McDonalds, Nissan, Rexall, Tupperware, Sierra On-Line, Feature Films for Families, the German Cable Television Network, CBS affiliates, etc.

Still doesn’t ring a bell? Well, sit back, relax and learn a bit about Mr. Chance Thomas.

My Mac: Chance, welcome to My Mac. I appreciate you taking the time from your busy schedule to chat with us for a bit.

Chance: Are you kidding? I’m thrilled to do the interview, even though my life has been a bit insane lately. I resigned my position at Sierra this week to launch my own company, the HUGEsound Network, and obviously the last 2-3 weeks leading up to that change have been intense. The good news is that I still managed to secure the contract for the music in Sierra’s upcoming mega-game JRR Tolkien’s Middle-Earth.

My Mac: Congratulations, and best wishes for the success of your new company! How did you change from producing the music for advertising and commercials and your other work to working for Sierra and producing the music for computer games?

Chance: Just sort of fell into it. Got VERY lucky. A good friend found a posting on the Internet for a composer position at Sierra. I sent out a résumé and a demo, had an interview, and was initiated into the game industry. I’ve been loving it ever since.

My Mac: Do you utilize a computer in your work?

Chance: You bet I do. I’ve got 4 of them.

My Mac: Do you utilize a Macintosh computer?

Chance: I do. The PowerMac G3 is the nerve center of my entire music production system.

My Mac: How so?

Chance: Picture a brain, with a spine dangling down from it, and nerves flowing outward from the spine to all parts of the body. If you can visualize that, then you’ve just visualized my entire recording studio. The G3 is the brain from which MIDI messages, timing, synchronization data, and even digital audio flow. Dangling from the G3 is an interface box (actually 2, but let’s not ruin the metaphor) which carries all of the incoming and outgoing information to and from the G3. Branching out from the dangling interface box are countless wires carrying destination specific signals for the various pieces of equipment scattered throughout the nether regions of the room–synthesizers, digital samplers, automated mixing consoles, video tape machines, DAT machines, processing gear, additional timing devices, etc. Get the picture?

My Mac: What is the process that you follow after you produce music for a game to port it over to the game itself?

Chance: First, I play it for the development team and get their feedback on it. If they don’t love it, then I don’t love it and it goes back to the drawing board. When the developers love it, then I master the music onto a stereo DAT tape. I do a lossless digital transfer from the DAT into a digitizing station to create an AIF or WAV file, depending on the format I’m working in. That file is then edited in such as way to fulfill the requirements of the interactive music design (which I cannot reveal without killing you), so that the flow of music appears to be seamless and free of transitions to the listener. Then, the file is converted into an MP3 or other appropriate compressed format in order to save on space. I can’t wait for DVD to become the standard development platform so we won’t have to do any compression in the future. People rave about MP3, but it’s certainly not the same as uncompressed audio, not by a long shot.

My Mac: Is Middle-Earth going to done for the Mac? I’ve heard that it’s not going to be.

Chance: Sad but true. No plans for Mac development at this time. Not that I had any say in the matter…

My Mac: What procedure do you follow to produce the music that you do for products such as Quest for Glory V: Dragon Fire? Do you watch what the programmers have produced and draw your inspiration from the work done, or do you produce your music without getting immersed in the game itself?

Chance: You should see my studio right now. I’ve got concept art from JRR Tolkien’s Middle-Earth hanging all over the walls, from the ceiling, in binders, etc. I’ve got copies of The Hobbit, and all three books that form the Lord of the Rings trilogy filled with stick notes hanging out all over the place. This is how I immerse myself into a game in the early stages of development. It puts my mind in the right place, so to speak.

It was the same in the early days of QFG5. I plastered my office with concept art, buried my nose in design documents and descriptions, and made a total nuisance of myself to the game designers. Since music provides the emotional backbone of any game, the composer has to understand the game from the inside out like almost no one else on the project. Of course as the game gets up and running, I like to play the game as much as possible. We call it play testing, and of course a good deal of testing does go on. But it’s still playing, if you know what I mean.

My Mac: For your work on Middle-Earth you have the conceptual art and the written works of JRR Tolkien to serve as your concept aids. Do you ever find yourself so immersed in the work that you become a character (a wandering minstrel or a harper) and let your imagination take you on the journey, envisioning what the character would see and feel, and then putting to music everything you’ve seen and felt?

Chance: So you’ve done a bit of composing yourself, have you? You’ve described the process perfectly. I can’t add anything that would improve upon the method you’ve described. Bravo!

My Mac: You’ve worked hard to produce the music for a new game. When it comes time to put the music to the work of the designers, it just doesn’t seem to want to fit. What gives first, the music or the game? Have game designers ever changed their work to fit the music that you’ve produced?

Chance: Interesting question. I see myself more as a servant, rather than an ARTISTE, Dah-h-ling. As I said before, I always play my stuff for the developers. If they don’t love it, I generally make changes until they do. However, there have been a couple of times when the developers were wrong. In that case, I stick to my guns.

One example of game design changing to fit the music happened with Quest for Glory V. I had created a new track as an exercise to try out some new samples that had just arrived. The art director heard it and said, “That sounds like underwater music.” Suddenly his face lit up, and he said, “We’ve got to have an underwater scene in this game!” and off he ran to sketch up some designs for the team. It turned out to be one of the more popular spots in the game.

My Mac: What is your favorite “type” of music?

Chance: Whatever pays that week? Seriously, there is such a wealth of talent and so much creativity out there in the world, how can I limit myself to just one favorite style? I have dozens of favorite types, and they change from month to month. Currently, my favorite style of music is solo Theorbo from Kapsburger. But last month it was orchestral music, because I was totally immersed in the Phantom Menace soundtrack. And next month it might be bubble rock, because my nephew is trying to turn me on to Limp Bizkit.

My Mac: How about your favorite artist or group?

Chance: Hmmm… How about a list of consistent pleasers, if not “favorites”?

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Loreena McKennitt
James Newton Howard
Sam Cardon
James Horner
Mariah Carey
The Rippingtons
Richard Elliot
John Williams

My Mac: What has had the largest impact upon you and your music?

Chance: Besides the Mac G3? Probably the support I receive from the publishers I’ve worked with so far. They have a real passion for outstanding music and sound in games. This has translated into creative freedom, technical support, resource allocation, and personal financial rewards. All of which allow me to devote myself totally to creating the best music my muse can come up with.

My Mac: What software do you utilize in your work?

Chance: Digital Performer, Giga Sampler, Cool Edit Pro, Sound Forge, and Finale.

My Mac: If you could design the ultimate Mac for your use in music production, how would you configure it? (hard drive(s), RAM, speed, software, additional hardware, etc.)

Chance: I want one with a 5.1 surround translator/interface built into it. And I want enough memory, speed, and hard drive space to play back 24 tracks of uncompressed digital audio streams at 96k and 24-bits, while running high-end graphics applications and an Internet game at the same time.

My Mac: It has been said that Apple has lost some ground to the other operating systems due to a “bit” more flexibility in system and hardware configuration. What does Apple need to do to win music producers and artists back to the Mac?

Chance: You know what? In the music community, Mac is still king. All the cool tools come out on the Mac way before they come out on PC. And they typically work better on the Mac than they ever do on the PC. And they’re usually much easier to run than comparable PC tools.

My Mac: How do most people react when you tell them that you write and produce the music for computer games?

Chance: I’ve got to tell you a funny story about this. I was at a NARAS (National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences) meeting one night with some very successful and influential people in the music business. One man (who you would recognize instantly, but whose identity I will conceal in order not to EMBARRASS him) asked me what I did for a living. I told him I wrote music for computer games. He sort of looked down his nose at me, scrunched up his face, and said, “You mean like Pac Man, or Donkey Kong, and stuff like that?” And I said, “No, I mean like full film orchestras, classical guitar, layers of voices, exotic instruments, automated mixdowns, interactive digital audio, and stuff like that.” He didn’t have much to say after that.

My Mac: You have been a strong advocate of having game music accepted and recognized by the Grammys. Why?

Chance: As a matter of fact, we won our campaign with the Grammy people. There are now three categories in which game music can compete for a Grammy Award. This is the first year of eligibility, and any nominees and/or winners from our industry will be included in the international television broadcast next February, 2000. Pretty cool, huh?

The Grammy Awards are the most prestigious musical award in the entertainment industry. Winning a Grammy will bring much needed attention and profile to the incredibly talented artists who make a living composing music for games. This in turn should translate into more opportunities for high quality game music, bigger budgets for live recordings, and more technology in place to support a higher fidelity listening experience. It will also encourage game music to be exploited on its own merits, such as through soundtrack albums. All of these things are good for the economics and attitudes of game composers, and will put more money in their pockets and more pride in their hearts.

My Mac: What recommendations would you make to budding composers out there who are interested in following along the same career path?

Chance: Tell them to turn tail and run the other way as fast as they can! You know, if my kids ever tell me they want to grow up and be a composer, I’ll probably cry. It’s a tough gig. No, that’s not exactly true. What’s tough is getting the gig. Finding people who are willing to pay you so you can pursue a passion for music is a difficult proposition at best. Let me tell you, I’ve had some mighty lean years in the early part of my career. And there may be hard times ahead. I never know.

But to anyone STUBBORN enough to want to do this anyway, I have a few suggestions:

1. Get all the education you can. Music theory, music history, recording engineering, computer programming, accounting, marketing, public relations, creative writing, orchestration, piano lessons, guitar lessons, singing lessons, salesmanship, and so on. You have the challenge of not only creating music to rival everything else that’s out there already (and there’s a LOT of GREAT stuff out there), but also of communicating your worth convincingly to prospective employers of your services.

2. Listen to all the music you can. Don’t allow yourself to only listen to what’s popular in one segment of the marketplace. Listen to movie scores, game scores, classical music, jazz, R & B, rock, country, etc., etc., etc. And try to listen to those who are among the best in their respective fields.

3. Write all the music you can. I’ve been to so many composition seminars they all start to blur together in my mind. But one thing stands out like a mantra–How do you get good at writing music? By writing music! They all say it and it’s true. The more you write, the greater your comprehension and mastery becomes of this language we call music.

4. Always be highly professional when approaching people you hope will pay you money. If you have an appointment at a certain time, be there 5 minutes early, not 5 minutes late. Sarah McLachlin can afford to come in fashionably late–you can’t. Put your demo together on a CD with a printed cover. You wanna complain about the costs? Go ahead. Just realize that most of your competition is delivering their demos on CDs with printed covers. The fancy packaging won’t mean anything if your music stinks, but if your music is good, the fancy packaging will send a message about your level of professionalism when it comes time to negotiate your compensation.

My Mac: What would you consider to be the crowning achievement in your career… accomplished or yet to be?

Chance: Being interviewed by Russ Walkowich, definitely!

That’s a tough one to answer. Winning awards is always cool. And getting meaningful feedback from people who like the music I’ve done is rewarding. But I am probably years away from anything that I could possibly describe as a crowning achievement. I guess I can fantasize that one day I’ll write a song that becomes a “standard.” Or that some piece of music I’ve written gets used in classrooms to teach orchestration, composition, or whatever. Or that someday I’ll release a soundtrack album that becomes a million seller. Who knows? For the time being, I have far too much learning and growing to do to think about crowning achievements.

My Mac: What’s next for Chance Thomas besides the startup of your new company?

Chance: Well, I’ve got to go mow the lawn later on tonight and fix a broken sprinkler head. Beyond that, it’s just more of pursuing a wonderfully rewarding career, learning all I can, growing as an artist and as a human being, and trying to contribute something of worth to the world we live in. And getting a new Blue iMac G3.

My Mac: What worlds haven’t you taken on yet that you would like a chance to explore and conquer?

Chance: I want to release that million selling game soundtrack album. I really want to see game music come into its own commercially. So many game soundtracks are there artistically, but the commercial success has not come yet. I also want to continue to produce big scores for big games, with lots of real instruments and flavors from all over the world. And I would like to score feature films. And lead a movement against the mainstreaming of pornographic content in entertainment. And keep my family together, healthy, and happy. And finish this interview before I go mow my lawn…

My Mac: Chance, a final question for you. Based upon your experience, what does the future of gaming hold for us?

Chance: Ok, baby. Here’s my hot button. The next big leap in game quality is coming from vast improvements in music and sound. Better composition and production, better compression techniques, better delivery systems, more sophisticated interactive schemes, surround sound protocols, etc. There’s a real sonic revolution going on in gaming and it’s happening all around us. It’s very cool to be part of the wave.

My Mac: Thank you Chance for spending some time with us and for letting our readers get a chance to know you. Best wishes with your new company and with your music.

Below, I’ve included a list of Chance’s credits and awards, and listings of some of the music work that he has done in his career. If you’re interested in more information, check out

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Russ Walkowich


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