In 2015, voice actor Matthew Mercer livestreamed a Dungeons & Dragons campaign with his eight friends, never realizing it would turn into the massive hit, Critical Role, it is today. Cut to 2022, Critical Role has released books, comic books and even an animated show on Amazon titled The Legend of Vox Machina. They also just released a soundtrack album under their new record label Scanlan Shorthalt Music, titled Welcome to Tal’Dorei. The album is filled with nearly an hour of immersive music inspired by Tal’Dorei and the world of Exandria in the Critical Role campaigns. One of the composers who contributed to the album is Hexany Audio’s Matthew Carl Earl, whose other titles include Arena of Valor and Moonlight Blade to name a few. Below Matthew goes into more detail about composing music for Critical Role.
How familiar were you with Critical Role before you began working on the show?
I had heard of the show just from being around gaming culture, also when we were approached by the team I had remembered seeing some recent buzz about their then upcoming, now released animated TV series, The Legend of Vox Machina.
What sort of direction were you given about the music you were to compose?
Because we were writing music for an upcoming campaign that didn’t really have a story fleshed out yet, the Critical Role team had us create music that could fit many different moods such as peaceful, scary, battle, sad, mysterious, etc.…
This allowed us the utmost creative freedom as we could use our imaginations and create music for a scene we built in our heads. For example, what I personally think “peaceful” sounds like will totally differ from what another composer from our team imagines “peaceful” should sound like. This gave the Critical Role team a large palette of emotional colors to playback during the show.
Critical Role is part of a new form of media called “actual play”. Because this is new territory for content creators, did you feel you could experiment more with the sounds you were creating?
Yes, absolutely. Because it is a live tabletop gameplay show, we are free from visuals and timing constraints. This allowed us to let our imaginations go wild and create whatever we wanted to create. Though at the same time, keeping in mind that the story is driven by the game master’s voice, we were sure to allow the music to have some space so as to not overpower the dialogue.
You have 3 tracks on the Welcome to Tal’Dorei album. Did you find any similarities between these 3 tracks?
Actually, in the beginning when I was picking out which tracks I wanted to work on, I consciously picked totally different moods, that way each composer on our team could give their own take on a mood I already wrote music for. Though, there was one track that we were calling “sadness” (later titled “The Champion’s Goodbye”) and I knew I wanted to do something special for that one, something heart wrenching and melancholy, yet having undertones of heroism and hope.
“The Champion’s Goodbye” is the last track on the album. Did you know this was going to be the case when you were creating it? Was there any extra pressure to create the final thoughts of the album?
I had no idea that they would end up using that one as the last track on the album, though I am super glad they did! This was a track I knew I wanted to do from the second I saw the prompt and I put a lot of my own emotion into that track. Funny enough, I think it was the last track that I wrote on the project. So, I probably had some unconscious motivation to make it special!
What has been your favorite thing about working on Critical Role?
My favorite thing has just been the cooperation. The Critical Role team has been such a breeze to work with. Talking to them in our initial call got me so excited about the project and hearing their positive feedback on our work really got us motivated through the whole process. I couldn’t wait for them to hear every new track we completed!
You began playing music at the age of 6, when your mother taught you how to play the piano. At what point did you begin focusing on video game music?
I’ve been involved in music almost my whole life, learning piano as a kid for sure helped lay the foundation. I got involved in popular music as a drummer in my teens, then started getting into composition and recording music during high school. After high school I wrote and played in a metal band called Xanthochroid for many years while teaching music on the side for extra cash. Though, the idea of being a video game composer was just a dream I had in my mind for a long time. It wasn’t until 2014 that I really made the push to do video game music professionally.
You are one of the owners and lead composer at Hexany Audio, which provides custom sound, original music, voice over, audio programming, and sound branding for video games, virtual reality and interactive media. How did this venture come about?
Hexany Audio was started by Richard Ludlow and some of his friends back when he was at Berklee College of Music around 2012 with the idea of creating boutique audio for video games. I met Richard in 2014 and started working as the company’s first employee doing music and sound design for only a couple of years before becoming a partner in 2016 and deciding to only focus on music. Since then, the company has gone through a lot of changes and growth, now we’ve got 21 employees and a rad studio in LA. It’s been a super fun ride for sure!
You can learn more about Hexany Audio at https://hexanyaudio.com/.