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Life is made up of Precious Moments. Things that you need to hold onto and make part of yourself. It’s by no accident that I use those words to try to describe to Tomb Raider fans everywhere the experience of being one of the lucky few to attend the recording of The Tomb Raider Suite at Abbey Road in London.
I’ve always believed that music often goes under-appreciated in games, media and film.
One of the greatest strengths of the music in Tomb Raider is that it captures the spaces you move through. I can hear Venice and I’m immediately there, or The T-Rex and recall the surge of adrenaline from that first frightening encounter. These are themes I will find myself humming or singing without even realising as they’ve come so embedded in my conscious over the years.
Now more than 20 years on, I’ve found myself a small part of a remarkable experience bringing that music back to life again but broader, more beautiful, and more emotive than ever.
I arrived in London the night before, and checked into a hotel within walking distance of Abbey Road. Predictably I didn’t get a great deal of sleep, and instead I spent most of the night bolt up-right in the hotel bed, listening to the sound of the busy London traffic rushing past my window and worrying about being up and out in time for the morning recording session. In the end I checked out an hour early. I sat nervously in the hotel bar with a coffee, buzzing with anticipation and trying to gauge when best to set-off. I’d already street-viewed my route but (predictably) I rushed, covering the ground much faster than my Google maps instructions indicated. Before long I was closing on the studio, with that iconic zebra crossing in sight. The pavement outside was awash with tourists getting ready to take pictures. I dodged between them like a shuttle craft manoeuvring between moving asteroids and bid my way through the gate, up the stairs and into reception.
20 Minutes early…I signed in and took a seat in the waiting area. I was here, this was actually happening, I’d made it!!! My nervous energy started to spill over as the other backers started to arrive. We made our introductions, shared stories of our journeys with each other and sat with fevered anticipation of what today would bring. We would be the privileged few to step into studio 1, and hear the magic as it happened! The concert back in December had brought my emotions straight to the surface a number of times, and right now I could feel all of that starting to bubble up again, “stay calm, don’t cry until they’ve at-least started playing” I kept telling myself!
Shortly after 9am, Tracie came to collect us. My mind raced as we walked the halls of Abbey Road and up the stairs into the green room overlooking Studio 1. I glanced a camera operator as we walked in, filming for the documentary. Tracie introduced us to Meagan Marie from Crystal Dynamics and we settled down on some sofas for some proper introductions with each of us telling our stories of how we got to be here. Codie & Kandice had joined us from the United States, Nils from Germany, Jim from Ireland, and finally Cath, Jeremy and Thomas from the UK. Hearing the stories of their journeys made me appreciate how short my relatively small hop from Derby was. And yes that’s Derby, England which of course is Lara’s home town!
Meagan asked if any of us would mind being interviewed for the documentary. My hand shot-up (probably a little too quickly!) and before I knew it I was first in front of a camera and mic’d up!
By now I’d only got a light grasp on reining in my excitement, but thankfully I’d given a little thought to what I wanted to say in case of such an eventuality! I’ll have to wait and see the documentary itself to see if they got anything usable (look out for the devilishly handsome fellow with the glasses and unfashionably long-side-burns), but after a few minutes of excitable questions and answers with Meagan I was off the hook and it was time for the rest of the backers to face the camera! Whilst I was being interviewed I also recognised a face from the production team (David Burns the Producer) joining us in the green-room.
I quietly settled back on a chair hoping I came across more eloquent than I sounded to myself as the documentary crew continued interviewing and the rest of us enjoyed a bit more of a chat. There was a real excitable buzz to the room, and Tracie and Meagan who had been there the day before filled us in on how the previous days recording had gone.
As 10am approached, we could hear members of the orchestra arriving and setting up in the studio outside. Before long we were gathered together, being streamed by Meagan to Twitter ready to take a tour of Studio 1. I remember Tracie asking us “Are we ready to rock & roll?!” before heading off down from the greenroom in line. We paused briefly in the control room greeting the crew setting up for the morning’s recording. On the control desk was a mask of Lara’s head, a ‘good luck omen’ for the day. The room ebbed with the positive vibe of a team focused on the task at hand.
Finally we stepped out onto the floor of studio 1, now slowly filling with members of the orchestra and ahead of us the man himself Nathan McCree. There were a lot of dreams being fulfilled that day, but as each of us in turn greeted and spoke to Nathan it was clear that he was living the greatest dream of all of us. For me it was a thrill to finally meet him in person, the man who had crafted those themes that have become so embedded into my life. After all, it’s not every day you get to meet one of your heroes!
We huddled together and continued to chat as members of the RPO started to practice on their instruments. I took a moment to soak in the ambience of where I was. Slowly within the studio fragments of familiar themes were starting to emerge. It was at that moment I realised how much of a fan Tracie was too, she grabbed my hand as Venice started on the piano next to us!!! Like an orchestral tornado the fragments of themes swirled round, increasing in number and volume with each moment as the RPO prepared for their fine-tuned craft.
Back up to the green-room the moment was now approaching. Tracie at this point gave us a cautionary tale about noise. Any recording needs the sounds of silence at the beginning and the end of a track. It was therefore vital that we resisted (however un-natural it felt), the urge to applaud the performance!
After a brief mission to make sure there were enough chairs we were installed onto the balcony overlooking Studio 1. By now it was brimming with members of the choir (40 voices in total) and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (76 pieces) and Robert Ziegler was in place, ready to conduct proceedings.
I could feel my hands trembling, the fragments of familiar themes now almost a roar, the atmosphere electric with anticipation. It almost didn’t feel real, more other-worldly as the ensemble below hushed to a silence to receive their first set of instructions for the day. David Burns joined us on the Balcony. What follows here is a pale interpretation of what it was like to be there, but I digress….
Pages were turned, the recording lights turned red and the orchestra engaged. The sound hits us and suddenly I was immersed in The T-Rex theme from Tomb Raider! I barely took a breath as I drew in the raw pure sound of each bar. As the crescendo of the extended queue began I felt my chin begin to wobble. The Metro Voices sounded Lara’s iconic theme. I clenched my hands as the track ended holding my breath until the recording light extinguished. Just one word ….”Wow!”
“Isn’t that amazing”, I hear David comment from behind us, “and that’s on their first play-through!”
Sure enough moments later, the recording lights glow red again. Once again Studio 1 roars, and now it’s sharper, louder and even tighter. My arms and legs tremble again as I try and keep my emotions in check. Subconsciously I find myself following the time-base of the piece, lightly tapping my fingers in time with its beat. It’s difficult to articulate just how amazing it is to hear such a talented group of musicians perform like this. I don’t know how you add on top of ‘staggering’ but sure enough they did! The recording lights go out again and there’s a few communications back and forth between the control room and the conductor. I hold my breath again as The T-Rex theme rolls and thunders over us again, louder, sharper, more expressive and…..Perfect!
By now there’s more than a few of us just about holding onto our emotions. I grasp the handrail and breathe slowly, whilst below further instructions are passed back and forth from the control room.
What followed next was fascinating. Each section of the orchestra played their part in isolation; I could just about hear the playback of the original track through their headphones. You could almost describe it as ‘T-Rex unplugged’! Hearing each raw element, with nuances and subtleties you would of never otherwise been able to decipher. Each part of the RPO took their turn to shine before we rounded with the Metro Voices choir.
As someone who’s a keen (albeit very amateur) vocalist, it was impossible not to be moved as they sounded the Tomb Raider theme together in a broad beautiful tone of harmonised voices. That was it, the first track of the day in the bag!
What followed next was A long Way Down. From the roaring punch of The T-Rex we got to experience the subtlety and skill of delivering the wafting, soaring and gently falling piece. At its crescendo with the choir at full call, I almost felt as if I was hovering above the room, just totally immersed in sound.
Just as they were wrapping up a subtle but offensive sound cut through the air. Is that a drill? Yes! Someone, somewhere in Abbey Road was using a hammer drill! We saw a few perplexed faces below, and a few members of the orchestra playfully imitated the sound with their instruments! The control room called break time. I’m not sure who caught up with ‘drill man’ or whether any plugs were cut off any appliances, but thankfully the noise stopped!!!
Whilst the orchestra went off for a well-deserved break, I stayed on the balcony and tried to absorb what I’d just experienced with the rest of the backers. I pressed my feet firmly into the floor and stared out on the space before us, an hour had passed in what felt like both the blink of an eye an eternity all in one.
Before long the members of the choir and orchestra started to return. The studio began to buzz with the sound of people practising their pieces. I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand up on end, as I heard someone below whistling The Tomb Raider Theme.
As the numbers gathered more familiar fragments swirled around the studio once more. I felt another excited chill, as I started to pick-out what was being practiced. If I was right, the next one was going to be hard to get through and keep my cool.
Robert Ziegler brought everyone to a hushed silence, and delivered their instructions. Pages were turned, the recording lights glowed red once more and I held my breath wondering if it could be true.
The piece that follows bares the same title as this write-up. I recall Precious Moments being one of the big stand-out moments at the concert back in December at the Hammersmith Apollo, with the crowd roaring and the orchestra and choir standing to the praise of the audience!
Sure enough within a few seconds, it was the track I’d hoped for! It’s another one of those pieces that builds from quite a subtle introduction into something much more with a very classical but rapturous pace. Once again I had to keep my emotions in check, barely taking a breath as they entered the final third. I wish I knew the technical term for it, but there’s a section where the notes played rise and fall at such a pace that just leaves me breathless every time I hear it (hopefully Nathan can explain to me one day how to describe that with more eloquence!). As the piece ends I’m back at the Apollo, hearing the auditorium roaring.
The recording lights go out, some more communication back and forth, and then there’s pen’s being taken to their scores! Some notes are adjusted, and they play through again! As before each time the orchestra and choir perform it louder, tighter, every note, every bit of expression is there, staggering, perfect.
At the end of the run Tracie grabs our attention, “Do you want to sit in the control room?” I’m torn in that moment, having just experienced the power and ambience of the last performance. I think Tracie sensed me dithering…and gives me another chance…”go on…you don’t want to miss it!!!”
I finally prize myself out of my chair (which I’ve barely moved from since 10am!) and make my way down to the control room.
The control room at Studio 1 is quite an impressive space filled with technology! Standing in there you feel like you could be on the bridge of a star-ship looking out into space. But instead of space your view (well window) is looking out at the orchestra & choir.
I settled on one of the sofas behind Nathan. He spun round and took a moment to say hello to us again. He asked how it was sounding and I think I just responded with a mindless grin and two thumbs up! Being in the control room was (as I recall Nathan putting it), a less emotional experience than being on the balcony. Crucially however we’d get to hear some of the synthesizer elements to the mix, along with the drum-kit which was in an isolation booth. In here we were going to get a fuller picture of what the final tracks would sound like.
As they fired up to play Precious Moments again I found myself in two places, both at Abbey Road, but also back at the concert in December. I remember wishing I could capture everything I was hearing in perfect clarity so I would be able to relive it forever. Now I was hearing that pure, beautiful sound coming through Studio 1’s speakers.
It really is difficult to adequately describe the lengths that have been undertaken to get the best possible sound for this project, but in that moment I appreciated all the hard work and dedication that had been going on in the control room as well as outside in the studio. As they hit my favourite ‘last third’ (I’m sorry I can’t describe it better!) I did my best not to let things bubble up. Precious Moments is the piece that’s been the most persistent in my head since the recording, and it’s definitely the one I will remember the Abbey Road experience by.
We got to witness a few extra takes and short re-works. I really don’t know how they manage to just start and stop in a small section of a track like they do, but it’s quite breathtaking to watch. I also got a clearer understanding of some of the communications back and forth between everyone. Discussing the performance, and deciding which section/bar to revisit, re-work to get the best possible sound, figuring their way round problems, everything running like a well oiled machine. This project could not have been in better hands.
We stayed there for a while as they began recording the main theme for Tomb Raider III, and I found myself this time, not back at the concert but back in 1998, loading that game for the first time.
I was still giddy as we returned to the balcony to continue listening to the live performances. This time though it wasn’t the sensation of music that hit me first, strangely it was the smell. Studio 1 has that ‘old wood’, school hall type smell. I don’t know why I hadn’t noticed it before? Perhaps because my other senses had been so overwhelmed? Now I took it all in as we listened to the final performances of the session.
By now I could see the clock on the wall creeping ever closer to 1pm. It was a strange sensation. I knew it was almost over. As the Orchestra & Choir rounded out their last notes for the session and dispersed for a well earned break I kept telling myself “Don’t be sad that it’s over, be glad that it happened!” As the studio cleared I tried to process everything I’d experienced over the last few hours (experiences I’m in fact still processing now as I write this). My feet really didn’t quite feel like they were on the ground. Today was something I’d considered impossible and yet, it had actually happened!!! We had got to see a little bit of Tomb Raider history happen in front of us.
We gathered in the green-room again with Meagan & Tracie, sharing our experiences of the day. By now my mind is filled with music, and I’m not sure how much sense I’m making. Tracie appeared with some champagne and Nathan joined us for another chat and a toast to the day.
At this point we learn some exciting news about the venues for the Composer Buffet Receptions (but I’m sworn to secrecy so no spoilers here…all I can say is…OMG…I can’t wait!!!!)
Finally we gather for some promo photos on the balcony overlooking Studio 1. By now I’m really no longer sure where I am. I recall asking a daft question about whether I need to take off my glasses as they have us lit up with studio lights and I’m worrying about reflections. We gather as a group, and then one by one with Nathan for photos.
As Nathan sprints off to prepare for the afternoon session things are slowly coming to a close.
We share one last goodbye (and a hug with Tracie & Meagan!) before signing out at reception and back out into the bustle of London. Myself and Thomas (one of the other backers) cross that infamous zebra-crossing and we chat as I wander up to St John’s Wood Tube station about the experience. I find myself wishing I’d booked a later train as he is in London much later than I am, but I have to make my way leaving a new friend behind in order to make my train from St Pancras.
And it’s then, on the escalator down into the tube station, alone for the first time that day that I finally break down. Not out of sadness but of the joy that I was able to be part of such an incredible day.
Tomb Raider and its music make up a significant part of the sounds of my childhood. It means something to me far beyond anything I can adequately write about here. These were games we played as a family and looking back on those and hearing these themes takes me back to those parts of my life.
Nathan’s music is as much a star as any of the speaking parts, locations, characters or creatures in those games. It brought colour, life, suspense, wonder, excitement and fear to them. Hearing them, paints spaces and transports me to places across the globe and even a few not of this world! Nathan’s music makes them come alive.
For me, that’s always been the power of Nathan’s original Tomb Raider scores, and why I still love this music so much to this day.
Hopefully this gives you some insight into what the day was like. I’d personally like to thank everyone involved at Abbey Road for such an incredible experience and a massive thanks and hugs to Tracie & Meagan for looking after us and making it such a magical day.
To the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Metro Voices Choir and the conductor Robert Ziegler, enormous respect and appreciation. You took me on an emotional roller coaster by playing with such outstanding expression and perfection.
A big thank you to my fellow ‘backers’, for all being so kind and sharing your stories, keep in touch!
Finally an astronomical thanks to Nathan for driving this whole thing forward and making the album such a community led project. I know personally for me it means a lot that ‘we’ the fans have been able to help make this a reality. Ever since the concert was originally announced this is something that’s captured our imagination and passions. I cannot thank you enough for the time and kindness you’ve shown us that day. It was clear to all of us how much this means to you as well, and I’m so glad it’s become a reality!
Here’s to your sound, your music and your vision!
They are ‘Precious Moments’ indeed.