Raphaël Gesqua started out as a self-taught prodigy of the French demoscene, where he operated under the conspicuous moniker Audiomonster during the very late ’80s. By his friend’s initiative, he was hooked up with Paul Cuisset and the famous Delphine Software International. At Delphine, he arranged the Amiga version of the legendary Flashback OST. a job that propelled him firmly into the video game industry. He has thrived ever since, earning himself two IGN award nominations on the way. Gesqua’s ambition was always to score movies, inspired by master composers such as John Williams or James Horner. That dream inevitably became a reality. After scoring several short movies, he landed his first feature film score for Livid (2011), produced by La Fabrique 2. It would become one of the most popular French film soundtracks of the time.
Hi, Raphaël, what ignited your passion for composing computer music ?
My first steps in producing sound that was remotely musical was during the ’80s, on the Amstrad CPC. I also made some games including music. I remember a game I made inspired by Steven Spielberg and John Williams’ masterpiece Jaws, where a swimmer had to reach the shore from a broken boat. The two Jaws notes played alternately with each swimmer’s progress. It was a very basic game I made just for fun and to tame my computer.
Did you have any musical background at all?
None. All my knowledge in the musical domain comes from what I’ve learned since my childhood, essentially with computers and video games, and since I made my first musical piece – privately, first, and professionally, later.
How did you get the Audiomonster moniker?
If I remember well, it was just a simple joke related to a sound program back then, which was called Audiomaster. I just didn’t want to be taken too seriously, and I thought that “monster” would kind of do the job!
Your demoscene affiliation is most notably associated with the notorious Melon Dezign crew. What is the backstory of your collaboration?
It came about after several demos with various groups like The Silents, Anarchy, Spaceballs, Thomas Landspurg and some others. There weren’t too many demos though because I quickly began to compose for video games. I was asked to join Melon by its founders, Seen (Henrik Lund Mikkelsen) and Paleface (Jacob Gorm Hansen), and by my friend Walt (Christophe Branche). With Walt, I worked on various demos like Ice from The Silents. We became friends and have been ever since.
Strangely, I don’t remember France being usually cited among the top demoscene destinations as opposed to say UK, Denmark, Poland or Germany. How did the French scene actually look like back in the day?
I really don’t know how France is perceived, today, on the demoscene field, because I’m just not involved in this world anymore – I don’t have the time, or maybe I would have to clone myself. Even so, I’m still asked all the time to get back into it, at least for one last time – maybe someday. I still have dinners with old scene friends.
All I can tell you is that back then, France was a really important demoscene country.
The best proof of that I can mention, for instance, involves me. It was when I really started getting big in demo music, in 1991, with Ice from The Silents and Virtual Worlds by Thomas Landspurg, both with the same crew that year. I entered the “Eurocharts” directly in first place for Best Composer and held that position for about four consecutive months.
And guess what? I was French!
So, not only did demoscene people from around the world watch and listen to French demos, but they also voted for them – at least for best music. France was definitely a big deal in terms of demoscene talent. My friend Moby/El Mobo (Frédéric Motte) was and still is a demoscene music legend, for example, which is well deserved.
What hardware and software did you prefer to use back in those days?
I began to produce kind of musical sounds with the Intellivision system from Mattel – the much-loved console of my adolescence. Then I moved to the Amstrad CPC – the much-loved home computer of my adolescence. But everything really began with the fantastic Amiga from Commodore. I even had an Atari ST before, which I also loved, but I didn’t compose any music on it.
Amiga really blew my mind back then. Firstly because of its amazing graphic power, which I began to admire in video game stores in Paris. Then, in 1989, I realized that it offered the possibility of producing “realistic” music, using real samples played at different frequencies.
For the first time in my life, I could say to myself, ‘That’s it, man, you could be the next John Williams, Vangelis, Jerry Goldsmith or Mike Oldfield!’. Well, maybe I was going to have to work a little first, but hey, what a wonderful machine anyway!
Your style of the era sounded quite unique, with an emphasis on dreamy synths, pronounced basslines, and in general, a very Jarre-esque feel. That offers the question, who influenced your music the most at that time?
Indeed. When I was a child, my father – who is himself a guitar player, but not a professional – was always buying and listening to, in the living room or the car, every album of Jean-Michel Jarre, Vangelis, Tangerine Dream, and sometimes John Williams. Williams is my all time favorite composer. He also listened to a lot of jazz – Jean-Luc Ponty and Stéphane Grappelli, for instance.
Other than Williams, I began to listen to such legendary composers as Jerry Goldsmith, John Barry, Basil Poledouris, Ennio Morricone, James Horner and Alan Silvestri. I also listened to composers from my country: Georges Delerue, Vladimir Cosma, Maurice Jarre, François de Roubaix, Philippe Sarde, Michel Magne etc. So, I can imagine all of those great composers and musicians greatly influenced the way I created music, and still do.
Can you elaborate a bit on your transition from the amateur scene into the professional world of video game music composition?
Well, to be honest, I’m not the one who “decided” I would become a professional music composer. Of course, when I decided to compose for the demoscene – even if I achieved some kind of success in it – I still wasn’t planning to become a video game composer, or even a film composer. That was despite putting messages in my modules like, ‘Hey, contact me for game music’ etc.
No, in actual fact, I was planning on starting commercial studies – a big mistake, considering how much I hate commercial jobs. Because, back then, music was not a “real” job, never mind video game music. In fact, when I did become a “pro,” people were asking me what I was doing for living, and of course, my answer was “videogame music composer.” They often replied, “OK but do you have a real job ?”. Things have changed today, fortunately.
Anyway, one day, a friend of mine, Jonathan, told me – after listening to my amateur music for the demoscene and others – that I would definitely become a video game composer. He said I should knock on publishers’ doors to get involved in a game project, because he thought I was born for that.
Of course, I nearly laughed at him, and never tried what he suggested. But guess what? One day, he decided to go by himself to visit video game companies near Paris, where I was living. He told them their search for a music composer was over, because Raphaël Gesqua was the man! He had brought with him a selection of my music – Protracker modules on an Amiga floppy disk – and played it to them. And that was it; I got calls very shortly after from companies with whom I would never have dreamed about working: Ocean Software and Delphine Software. And that’s where it all started.
What’s more, a few years later, Jonathan told me that I wouldn’t stop at game music, but that I would also, someday, become a feature film music composer. And once again, he was right…
Do you remember your first meeting with Paul Cuisset? What were your first impressions of the man?
Of course. To be honest, back then, I often skipped college and high school classes to play Paul Cuisset’s games. Even before the creation of Delphine Software, I was playing such titles on my Atari ST as Space Harrier (the incredible arcade conversion of Yu Suzuki’s masterpiece), Bio Challenge (amazing visuals and technology, for its time) and Tonic Tiles (a cool Arkanoid-like game with digitized music, which was amazing). Then I played them on the Amiga: Croisière Pour un Cadavre (Cruise for a Corpse), Les Voyageurs du Temps (Future Wars), Opération Stealth and more.
So many great adventure games, which had no reason to envy to the greatest Lucasfilm games. So, imagine my face when Paul gave me a phone call – when I wasn’t even 20 years old – to tell me that he was interested in working together. I worked on Flashback – The Quest for Identity, Paul Cuisset’s latest game for the Amiga 500 – a dream I would have never expected to come true. Back then, there were actually no video game stars as we have today; the video game world was very small and exclusive. However, I already had my favorite stars: Yu Suzuki, for all of his ’80s Sega masterpieces and Shenmue, and Paul. I considered, and still do consider, Paul as the best French game creator, and one of the best in the world.
Flashback is one of the most revered French titles of all time, and definitely the most successful of the golden Delphine Software era. I keep coming back to the legend regularly; my heart is, indeed, with the original Amiga version, for which you are also responsible. In my opinion, it’s still the best sounding version of the game to date. Sources mention three composers, as the game received many conversions and formats including CD. What was your exact role in the making of the soundtrack?
Really simple. Paul gave me a tape containing the original soundtrack from the Sega Megadrive, composed by Jean Baudlot and Fabrice Visserot. He asked me to remake them in my own way on the Amiga 500, with the best possible sound performance and the least possible memory size. It was a real challenge, but the demoscene had been a great school for that, and it probably really helped me to reach this goal. So, I did it, and you know the result.
Your involvement with Delphine was a fruitful one. You worked on their most successful titles – not just as a composer, but also the main sound designer on Flashback’s direct sequel Fade to Black, and another of the studio’s megahits, Moto Racer. How did that come about?
Well, it seemed my work on Flashback had pleased Paul. He called me back two years later to work as a freelancer on Shaq-Fu, his next game. Then he made me the full-time sound director/composer at Delphine Software from 1994 to 1997, working on Flashback’s sequel, Fade to Black, and then Moto Racer.
In the process, Paul also asked me to become the sound designer of his games, which at first frightened me a bit, as I had never done that before. But you know, Paul is really a man with multi-faceted talents. Indeed, when he saw my initial reaction to also being a sound designer, he sat down at my computer and showed me a simple way to make an original sound, by mixing several sounds and some effects. And that was it; I had “learned” the basics of sound design in several minutes.
Both of the aforementioned games delivered their music in a fully digital, CD-quality multi-channel format. Whilst Fade to Black is a very cinematic experience with a soundtrack comprising a whopping 40 tracks, Moto Racer is a driving rock music masterpiece, full of uncompromising riffs and guitar solos. Were there any specific inspirations for either piece other than the actual game theme?
Well, I don’t deserve it, but thanks a lot for calling it a “masterpiece.” About Fade to Black: at the time, I was very young and always listening to masters like John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, James Horner etc. They probably were my main source of inspiration, beyond the fact that I definitely wanted to create something really different and very much darker than the Flashback soundtrack. I was also trying to make it really interactive, which was very rare back then.
For Moto Racer, it was Paul himself who first asked me to create a rock main theme. I tried to explore different styles for each track – from jazz rock (Snow Ride theme) to light metal (Speed Bay theme) and techno (Red City theme). I also included a little film soundtrack feel, like in the Lost Ruins theme. I still have the original sampler – OctaMED-made original models – somewhere on a CD.
Was it you performing those wicked guitar solos on Moto Racer?
Not at all. You know, I only consider myself a music composer, not a musician. So, in all tracks where it was needed, my synthetic guitars were replaced note by note by the excellent performer Jean-François Mignot, with the mixing help of Marc Minier, at Delphine Studios. They did quite a great job, I think.