Orchestral conductor and Inspirefest 2017 speaker, Eimear Noone. Image: Isabel Thomas

Eimear Noone: How a 10p gig for Metal Gear Solid spawned a career in video game music

17 May 2017

Orchestral composer Eimear Noone is a legend in the gaming industry for her work on World of Warcraft and Overwatch, but her background story is not a typical one.

While some of gaming’s greatest and most memorable hits can be traced back to the days of 8-bit video games such as Super Mario Brothers or even older games such as Tetris, the current generation is taking things to a whole new level.

The obvious difference is that now, video games are rivalling major Hollywood blockbusters in terms of scale and budget, and a stunning soundtrack is considered a crucial part of the package.

One person who has established herself as a leading composer of great video game music is Irish woman Eimear Noone, who will grace the stage at this year’s Inspirefest to reflect on an incredible, Emmy award-winning career.

To name just a few of her credits, Noone has worked on classics such as Diablo III, World of Warcraft and, more recently, Overwatch, a game that has a dedicated following of millions of players.

Eimear Noone in action

Eimear Noone in 2015 conducting at Electronic Opus. Image: Electronic Opus

An unlikely career path

Speaking with Siliconrepublic.com, Noone admits that when she was a classical music student in Trinity College Dublin, composing – or even contributing to – orchestral music for video games hadn’t even crossed her mind.

During her time in Trinity, she remembers one of her friends, David Downes – who went on to found the group Celtic Woman – frantically running through the halls trying to round up a choir to help him record audio for a computer game.

As a friend, Noone agreed to help him on the video game that has since gone on to spawn one of the greatest franchises in the industry’s history: Metal Gear Solid.

“I didn’t even know what it was for, but I volunteered,” she said. “We were paid about 10p each.”

A year later, unbeknownst to Noone, her brother and some of his friends were playing the game and saw her name in the credits.

“I was sure there was another Eimear Noone – but then I saw the other names from the choir and put it all together. I guess I was destined to work in games no matter what.”

Creating music for epic stories

Of course, she now knows how an orchestral composer can build up an impressive catalogue through video games.

The games she tends to work on are rich in source material, and, to create pieces of music, each game or expansion can often contain enough material to fill 10 movies.

So, while she has fully embraced the world of video game music – particularly science fiction – does she find it differs much from her classical training and what orchestral music ‘should’ sound like traditionally?

“Actually, it’s sort of the opposite,” she said.

“When the worlds are so massive and the stories so epic, I find that the orchestral palette is just about the only sonic landscape that can hold its own; something that can make the worlds look and feel bigger.”

She added that with games in the genre of science fiction, it is possible to use traditional orchestral sounds, but in really different ways.

“We might use orchestral instruments in unusual ways to create sounds that might be confused as sound design, but, to a 20th-century composer, these techniques are still considered orchestral music,” Noone said.

“Maybe this is confusing, but that’s also part of the fun.”

Yet unlike famous pieces of orchestral music, Noone’s music is typically not actively listened to, but instead functions as part of the background experience for a player.

Does she fear that her music can get lost behind some of the big action set pieces of video games?

“Absolutely, but if you were to ask the same question to the sound designers, they would probably say the opposite,” Noone admits. “Finding balance is always the key – and knowing when the music should lead and when the effects should lead.”

The problems with streaming music

One area she does have a slight problem with, however, is how people might listen to her music away from the games, specifically with the growth of music streaming services such as Spotify.

Last year, Spotify launched a portal dedicated to music from video games, believing it offered the perfect platform for composers to get their music to reach a greater audience.

Noone is not so convinced that this is good for her and other composers.

“I have really mixed feelings about services like Spotify. Personally, no one has ever called me to score a game because they heard my music on Spotify,” she said candidly.

“Conversely, I know there are thousands of CDs that we might have sold if Spotify didn’t exist.”

On the other hand, she admits that services such as YouTube and Spotify have exposed an entire fanbase to the work undertaken by herself and Craig Stuart Garfinkle, who are jointly running a Kickstarter for their Celtic Link project.

“I guess every composer has to evaluate the benefits and challenges and make their own decision. But if I were just trying to get my music heard, as an unknown, I would indeed try everything.”

Eimear Noone will be speaking this summer at Inspirefest, Silicon Republic’s international event connecting sci-tech professionals passionate about the future of STEM. Book now to get your Early Bird tickets.

Colm Gorey
By Colm Gorey

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic. He joined in January 2014 and covered AI, IoT, science and anything that will get us to Mars quicker. When not trying to get his hands on the latest gaming release, he can be found lost in a sea of Wikipedia articles on obscure historic battles and countries that don't exist any more, or watching classic Simpsons episodes far too many times to count.

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