Interview: Tom Salta, Composer for HALO Spartan Strike

Posted on May 11, 2015 at 3:55 pm

It’s one thing to create a soundtrack for one story. But Tom Salta had to create one consistent theme for multiple potential storylines and outcomes for the latest version of HALO, called Spartan Strike.
The game is available on Windows 8, Windows Phone 8, Steam, and for the first time in Halo’s history, on iOS (iPhone and iPad). Salta answered my questions about composing for the HALO universe.

What was the first instrument you learned how to play?

One day when I was five years old, I heard my mother playing on the piano. I asked her, “Could you teach me how to do that?”… I studied piano with her until I was in eighth grade.

What was the first music you paid to own or hear in person?

Now that’s a question no one has ever asked me before… It was the soundtrack to Raiders of the Lost Ark…12 inch vinyl in 1981. I can’t tell you how many times I listened to that soundtrack. It was my favorite movie of all time and the music is what brought it to life for me. This was before VCRs so listening to the soundtrack was the only way I could experience the movie at home. I even bought the movie cards that showed scenes from the movie and would scroll through them matching the scenes to the music.

What is the most difficult part of writing music for a game and how does it differ from writing for straight narrative like a television show or a song for a recording artist?

Watching a movie or a TV show is a linear experience: It has the same beginning, middle and end. The same goes for a song. In all these forms of media, the picture, dialog and sound effects happen exactly the same way every time. In contrast, video games tend to be non-linear by their very nature because they’re interactive and, therefore, the experience is different each time you play. The music can change unpredictably from one moment to the next, so you have to think in a non-linear way and anticipate how various parts might connect with each other. This also means that most of the time you’re not scoring to a specific action on screen but instead to the general mood of that scene.

Copyright Tom Salta 2015
Copyright Tom Salta 2015

How does music help guide and inform the player?

I often refer to music-to-picture as the emotional dimension. It is the easiest way and often the most effective way to alter the player’s mood and perception. It has the same effect in films… you could look at the same picture with completely different music and it can completely change the scene. It’s been stated many a time before but I think it’s worth repeating that Steven Spielberg once said, “Music and sound represent at least fifty percent of the entertainment value of all my films.” In games, music can be even more important.

How do you reference previous HALO soundtracks to maintain familiarity and consistency but keep it new?

The original Halo: Combat Evolved from 2001 is what inspired me the most to switch from making records to making music for games. I have absorbed the soundtracks to all the Halo games for over a decade now, so it’s part of my musical DNA. Sometimes I’ll go back and reference some of Marty O’Donnell and Michael Salvatori’s original music, but usually, I don’t have to. When I’m creating original music for the Halo universe, it comes from a sincere understanding of the “Halo sound”. It’s become a part of my musical identity. When you’re being true to who you are as a composer, it’s easy to remain consistent and evolve at the same time.

How many hours would the soundtrack be if you played it all at once?

It’s about 60 minutes of music in total.

What’s your favorite part of the HALO universe?

I’m a little more surprised saying this than you might think, but looking back, I think the music is my favorite part. In my opinion, the music is what took Halo from being a great game into an iconic game. The original musical identity that Marty and Michael created over a decade ago is forever intertwined with Halo’s identity, just as much as the characters, the graphics and the story. Perhaps this is why, being a huge Halo fan myself, the responsibility that I feel as a composer in this franchise is monumental. If it doesn’t feel authentic and doesn’t draw me into the Halo universe, then I’m not doing my job. Fortunately, I’m thrilled to see that so many Halo fans out there are really resonating with the music and feel that it’s keeping the spirit of Halo alive.

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