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Xbox 360 turns 10: tales from composing Kameo

Ex-Rare audio chief Steve Burke remembers the Xbox 360 launch game.

As the Xbox 360 turns 10 years old this Sunday, 22nd November 2015, so do the console's launch titles. Among them: Rare's Kameo: Elements of Power.

The action adventure game - four years in the making - follows the story of elf princess Kameo as she battles her evil sister and a troll king. Reviews were mixed (Eurogamer's Kameo review, by ex-editor Tom Bramwell, turned up a 5), but most agreed it sounded good. And for that, we thank Steve Burke.

Burke, who joined Rare in 2001, was audio lead on Kameo, which means he wrote its music and worked on sound effects and character voices. Here, to celebrate the game's 10-year anniversary, Burke tells Eurogamer about his time on the game, reveals never-before-seen footage of recording sessions in a new video, below, and discusses the cancelled Kameo 2.

I started at Rare in January 2001, and was working on Kameo: Elements of Power right from the get-go. It was originally going to come out on the Nintendo GameCube, but ended up as an Xbox 360 launch title (via the original Xbox, which we nearly completed) for Microsoft.

On the team I was the audio lead, composer, and also worked on many of the sound effects and character voices. The first few months we had no audio streaming, and it was looking likely that the whole music score would be MIDI sample based, the same as the old N64 games. The first time we publicly showed the game at E3 in 2001, that was MIDI triggered samples. Anyway, thankfully the programmers pulled their fingers out and wrote some code after the first E3 demo and we had streaming audio, which was nice. And quite frankly, a relief.

These tracks were written in my first few months starting at Rare, between January and March 2001, mostly using MIDI triggered samples on the Dolphin (GameCube devkit), in a similar way to the way music was stored on the N64.

Nearly all of these were not used in the final game. Some of them were re-written using better samples when the audio was streamed as Wav files, later in development.

Cover image for YouTube videoKameo Beta - GameCube Version! [UNRELEASED!]

The approach I took to writing the soundtrack changed quite a bit as the game went through development. The early music, when I first started in 2001, was lighter and playful. Well, it was going to be a Nintendo game after all! And I loved the music from classic Nintendo games. We had all sorts of crazy gameplay, with elemental baby catching, sidekick characters like Meepo, and many more monsters that you could transform into (unseen outside of the development team).

When Microsoft bought Rare, the game became more action based and a little darker to suit the Xbox audience, and character designs changed. If you listen to the whole game soundtrack there is a balance of the earlier Nintendo style music, and the big thumpingly loud orchestral tracks that I recorded with the orchestra. I also learnt more about scoring music to video games in the process, so the themes and instruments changed as I experimented in different styles. If you listen to the Knight Boss music, that was one of the earlier action tunes from when I first started on the game. Comparing that style to something like Hero's Theme performed with the orchestra, you can hear the evolution of the music style.

Some of the most interesting pieces to record were where Aisling Duddy sang in her glorious Irish voice - she really brought the tracks to life. Aisling was in the art department at Rare, and very kindly sang on several of the tracks, including the Fairy Kingdom level.

Steve Burke, ex-Rare audio chief.

The sound design to the game was a massive undertaking. I worked on that for over four years, and created the voices to many of the characters, including all the trolls, Thermite, Chilla, 40 Below, Deep Blue, Knight Boss, and others, including a cackling witch called the Mystic.

There were a lot of great sound designers working on the game at Rare, such as Eveline Novaovic, Ben Cullum, John Silke and Robin Beanland. Martin Penny helped out with the cutscene surround mixing. Jamie Hughes played trumpet and sang on quite a few tracks - always nice to have Jamie play an instrument on a track; we started at Rare on the same day in 2001. And then there was our little Rare in-house makeshift choir that found its way onto a dozen tracks, affectionately known internally as the Hot Piss Five (not quite sure why, exactly, as there were usually six). It was John Silke, Ben Cullum, Jamie Hughes, Robin Beanland, David Clynick, and Chris Marlow.

Skip forward to 2005, in the end I must have written well over four hours of music for the game, of which 80 minutes we recorded with an orchestra and choir in Prague. This video clip that I put together for the 10th anniversary of the launch of Kameo was filmed with my flimsy little camcorder, so it's a bit shaky, and the audio is probably distorting. If nothing else it will give you an idea of what it was like in the recording sessions, and to see how the conductors and musicians go about performing the music. The sound you hear in the video does not have reverb, compression, and the mixing and mastering niceties. That is something we did after the four days of recordings.

Cover image for YouTube videoKameo: Elements of Power 10 Year Anniversary. Looking back at the Orchestra Recordings.

The first two-and-a-half days we recorded the orchestra that Nic Raine conducted. Nic also orchestrated the score for me. He previously worked on orchestration for John Barry scores, including some of the Bond films (very impressed by his work). Then we had a day of recording the choir, which was overdubbed on to the orchestra recordings.

Kameo was the first live orchestral soundtrack Rare recorded. When I flew out for the four days of recording, some of the others from the music department came along to see what it was like. Grant Kirkhope, David Wise and David Clynick from Rare headed over to listen to the recordings. Also, the Microsoft Producers and PR team joined me, they were Alison Stroll, Jim Veevaert, and Jen Martin. The following year, in 2006, both Grant and myself went back to Prague to record the music to Viva Pinata.

Microsoft released the soundtrack CD to Kameo: Elements of Power, through Sumthing Else Music Works label. It is also available as a digital download via iTunes and Amazon. It went on to be nominated for the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences (AIAS) Outstanding Achievement in Original Musical Composition award.

On my website, SteveBurkeMusic.com, if you go to the music page and scroll down to the bottom, you can download the Zip with many of the tracks to the game. None of these are on the Soundtrack CD, they are 'everything apart from' the Soundtrack CD. The numbering system of the tracks was the order in which I composed them between 2001 and 2005.

We did start work on a sequel to Kameo for a year. I wrote several tracks, with more of the Celtic approach for the demos. I also recorded a few voiceovers for Kameo 2 demos with Chris Sutherland (voice of Banjo and Kazooie, and Killer Instinct narrator, now at Playtonic Games). Underneath that voiceover story, I wrote new music, which was all put to a video of concept art and in-game footage. The idea was to map out a general approach to the music, sound design, and story and pitch it to Microsoft. Anyway, you probably won't be listening to those. I'm not even sure if Rare or Microsoft have them (it is probably on an older backup folder of mine somewhere). On a final note, Kameo 2 did look spectacular and the team made a heck of a good playable demo.

In 2009 I left Rare to work as a freelance composer and sound designer. Quite a few of my projects since then have been with friends and colleagues from the Kameo team and other teams that I worked with at Rare. So it's fair to say that it was a really great experience to be part of Rare and the Kameo team. I'm a lucky fellow.

By chance I came across a hip-hop track in 2010 that sounded rather familiar. The underground hip-hop supergroup Army Of The Pharaohs used sections of my "Hero's Theme" from Kameo in a track on their album, Unholy Terror. The track is called "Spaz Out", and the orchestral section at the start and underlying looping orchestral section throughout the track is a remix of the Kameo track. Weird, eh?! Here it is. There's quite a bit of swearing, so viewer discretion required:

Cover image for YouTube videoJedi Mind Tricks Presents: Army of the Pharaohs - "Spaz Out" [Official Audio]

As for upcoming projects, I'm looking forward to helping out writing music for the soundtrack to Yooka-Laylee by Playtonic Games, and both Grant Kirkhope and David Wise are composing the soundtrack to this game. Another project is Raging Justice, that three of us ex-Rare Kameo team members have nearly finished. It's a '90s style arcade brawler for Xbox One, Steam, iOS, and I'm writing the music for this one. It's out in early 2016. I'll be doing a behind-the-scenes on the music mixing and recording for Raging Justice.

You can Kameo now on the Xbox One as part of Rare Replay (Rare Replay is a 2015 compilation of 30 video games previously developed by Rare and its predecessor, Ultimate Play the Game, in their 30-year combined history), or by using the Backwards Compatibility feature to play Xbox 360 games directly on the Xbox One.