Jukebox Heroes: Chatting with Neverwinter's Kevin Manthei

Justin Olivetti
J. Olivetti|09.24.14

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Jukebox Heroes: Chatting with Neverwinter's Kevin Manthei
This week on Jukebox Heroes, we're sitting down with Cryptic Studios Composer Kevin Manthei to talk about his work on the studio's most recent title, Neverwinter. So Kevin, Can you introduce yourself and give us a little background on you and your history with the company?

Kevin Manthei: Hi! I am Kevin Manthei, a Minnesota-born, California-living composer. I write music for film, TV and games. I have been doing this for over 20 years and have worked with most of the big publishers in the gaming world and have scored music on feature and indie films, television shows, and animated projects.

Currently I just finished scoring the Guardians of the Galaxy section of Disney's Infinity 2 video game and am in the middle of scoring Season 3 of the Ultimate Spider-Man animated series for Marvel/Disney XD. I also recently started work on the animated series Transformers: Robots In Disguise for Hasbro/The Hub network.

I have been working with Cryptic on music for its games since City of Villains. I have scored music for City of Villains, Champions Online, Star Trek Online and Neverwinter. Each project I worked on for more than a year, and each game has about 100 minutes of music I scored.

What was your approach to creating Neverwinter's score? Were you drawing off of any influences or going for a specific feel?

We tried some interesting approaches very early on. One approach was modern heavy guitar riffs with an orchestral background for combat, but the team kept coming back to wanting the game's music to reflect the fantasy elements and have a more classic fantasy approach. I didn't have the reinvent the wheel; Neverwinter's being part of a strong franchise with an MMO format is part of a long history of fantasy games. I chose to embrace that rather than fight it with music that would oppose what you traditionally would consider right for a game like Neverwinter.

I also took direction from Michael Henry, Cryptic's audio director, along with the team as well as got to watch and see the various worlds, levels and gameplay. A beautiful game like Neverwinter isn't hard to write for; you get inspired by the gameplay, the art, the locations, and the story, and to me that's plenty enough to jump right in and turn all that into music.

How many music tracks are in the game? Are there any plans on making these available to the public?

I wrote and contributed about 65 tracks totaling around 100 minutes of music, and that's not counting additional content I have scored since the game has come out. I would welcome a soundtrack release, whether CD and or digital. I think it would be awesome. Fans and those who appreciate the music should let Cryptic know and maybe we can get something going!

What themes and motifs do you have running through the score? What would you encourage players to listen for?

I approach game music a little bit differently from film and TV music in that I don't purposely create an overarching theme that I then bring back throughout the game. The reason being is that even with hundreds of minutes of music, game music tends to be repetitive because of the amount of time that's required to play the game. In film and TV projects, they are meant to be watched once and you can hammer away at a theme many many times throughout the show. I prefer to have the thematic elements more of the sound of the music, the instruments, the styles and the mood it creates. So the music is unique to the various places you visit yet overall there is continuity.

Which piece was your favorite to make?

I really liked writing the ambient dungeon pieces. It's a great reason to get out some live instruments throw up a mic and start recording weird sounds, FX, etc. I play violin and cello, interesting old brass instruments, percussion, and ethnic wind and flutes. I also, on occasion, have been known to get my daughters involved and have them play on my tracks. They are the real reason I have a violin and cello lying around. In fact, Keller, my youngest daughter, co-wrote the Neverwinter theme with me. I incorporated her violin idea into the main melody of the theme.

Fans seem to have responded well to the Protectors Enclave theme, a piece that isn't tense but melodic, fun, and just a nice medieval orchestral tune to listen through while you explore the city.

I also really like how the music turned out for the Vellosk section of the game. I wrote music less typical of the game: pretty, melodic, ambient, yet all still a bit on edge.

What's the process like to create a music track? Do you flip through concept art and meet with the team, or do you just roll your d20 and hope for the best?

Yes. Haha. Nice one, but seriously I use chance and randomness as an influence. With music there are literally millions of ways you could do something -- each thing you do influences the next step and I try to give myself a break and not over stress about each decision and try to go with the flow and be open to what comes from that unknown. Every composer and artist understands the nerve wracking feeling you get when looking at a blank canvas! Even though I know I will compose something appropriate and good for the game, the moment of starting a piece of music has me bit on edge with a tickle in my stomach.

For Neverwinter I was fortunate to have visited the studio and took video of each level of the game. Along with talking in depth with the team about each level I also got updated artwork as I worked. Having the video loop while I scored the music was a great benefit and helped with inspiration!

What do you listen to outside of your own work? Do you have any composers you admire?

I am a fan of most music; I like Spotify as it allows me to sample lots of genres. Lately I have been into instrumental funk. I love stuff from the '70s and especially stuff written to sound like the '70s. The band Sound Stylistics comes to mind.

I am a fan of minimalist, contemporary, and classical composers as well as many contemporary film composers. I like the music of John Williams, John Powell, Hans Zimmer, and others. I am also a fan of some of my friends and collaborators music. I am co-scoring the Transformers TV show with Kevin Kiner, whose score for Hell on Wheels (AMC) is one of my favorite scores on TV right now. Sometimes I wish they would not have music in TV and films so I could concentrate on the story!

Have you been continually adding new music to the game over the course of the new updates?

Yes, this has been fun. I have contributed music to the Shadowfell, Sharandar, IceWind Dale, Caer Konig, Kessell's Dungeon, and the Dwarven Valley sections of the game. I am looking forward to doing more. I think some of my best writing has been in some of these newer tracks.

Do foundry creators have access to the soundtrack (i.e., assigning a piece of music for a specific locale)?

Yes, Foundry authors have access to all of the music tracks in Neverwinter and can easily chose a music score for their Foundry project.

What is one of the most interesting stories from your time with Cryptic?

Well, working for Cryptic is an absolute dream: Michael Henry allows me to do my thing and doesn't constrict me in the least. Something that might be surprising is that many times I write music for parts of games like Star Trek Online without seeing one screenshot. I score it based on my gut feeling, my talk with Michael, and the overall vibe the game already has going for it. So if you're looking for hand-holding, this job isn't it!

Thank you for talking with us Kevin! Be sure to check out his website and Twitter feed as well as Neverwinter's SoundCloud page!

MMOs aren't just about looks; they also have great soundtracks that often go unnoticed. Heroes don't stand for that! Massively's Jukebox Heroes examines game soundtracks and features the best tunes to share and discuss. Your DJ for the hour is Justin Olivetti, and the request line is open!
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