Composer Interview: Wall of Sound
- Conducted May 4, 2010 by the OC ReMix community:
OCR Staff: Jack, tell us about your role as the lead composer for Mass Effect 2 - what it was like leading your team to score one of the most anticipated sequels of 2010?
Jack: It was really eye-opening. First, to how much fun it would be to collaborate with the guys, but also how much freakin' work it was! :) In addition to the guys, I also have to thank Cindy Shapiro who created the database from which we could all keep it straight. In the end, we had over 750 composed assets - transitions, cinematics, endings, outros, intros, music files... crazy!! Basically, I wrote about 65 minutes solo, then there was another 100 minutes written by Sam, David and Jimmy. Brian also wrote a couple of cues somewhere in the wee hours when he was implementing everyone's work.
I would start off by giving each composer some direction on what I thought their level of music should be about, the instrumental palette, the character traits that they might want to focus on, the general tonality. They'd try a few things until I felt they hit on something real. I'd just serve as their sounding board. It was fun to hear what they had developed and then try to guide them to finishing their thought on a particular piece. I wanted to give them as much autonomy as possible so they could really dig in and feel satisfied that it was their piece, but I also needed to be mindful of the vision for the whole. That was the fun part for me. They all wrote some great music and I'm really proud to have worked on it with them!!
OCR Staff: Tell us a little about Wall of Sound. How does leading a team compare to composing a game solo; what are the advantages?
Jack: I actually really liked the collaboration. I very much enjoy the idea of having a few people critique the work. I'd really like to have more time for that - because you know, it does take more time to go back and forth, but overall I like doing things this way. Wall of Sound has been in the back of my head for years and I've finally been able to do some things with it with Mass Effect 1 and 2. Those are just epic games with a lot of music. When I was just getting started on the ME2 score, Simon Pressey who was the audio director for BioWare and new to the company, suggested that the implementation on the sequel could use some improvement. I volunteered right away to get involved. Brian DiDomenico had worked with Simon and myself on the implementation for Myst IV and did an incredible job on that - he was working hand in glove with me in my studio. I'd write and produce a piece and hand it off to him and within minutes he's put it in the game for testing. We'd tweak it and then sign off on it, then on to the next. So he and I had some experience at this. So for ME2, we had to take it to a whole new level with Wwise and using that software and middleware (inside the game engine) to make the transitions as perfect as we could. We're all really proud of how that worked out. But going into the future, I'd like to see us handling everything from composing the music to mixing the game. Game mixing is becoming the next big thing in game audio as there is a real craft to that and it's not a simple thing given how many different audio assets are playing at once!
Another Soundscape: Who was responsible for the direction of the overall sound of the Mass Effect series?
Jack: I have to say that the director, Casey Hudson, he really had the vision for what it was supposed to be. It was supposed to be a cross between Blade Runner (Vangelis) and various music by Tangerine Dream. Love that stuff! I won the initial audition for the first game, but when I first heard Sam Hulick's audition piece, I had to wonder why they chose me!! :) "Uncharted Worlds" is still one of my faves. Sam also penned the lion's share of "Shepard's Theme" and "Sovereign's Theme". Those are pretty great. I love Richard Jacques' "Citadel Theme" which utilized "Shepard's Theme" and my "Presidium Theme" as the main introduction to the Citadel in ME1. Each of the guys have written some totally amazing work for the series. I suppose I was charged with making sure it all worked together. I'm very happy with how it turned out. I get a lot of positive comments almost on a daily basis about ME2's "Suicide Mission" and "End Run" as well as the "Illusive Man" theme.
OCR Staff: Okay, we have to ask: How much alien sex did you study & analyze - professionally and scientifically, of course - as part of the creative process? Did it ever feel awkward composing music intended as the background for inter-species coupling?
Jack: Man, you should have seen how much of that they PLANNED to do but never made it into the game! I was really looking forward to scoring that! :) But no, the furthest we ever really got was "Reflections". A nice track to be sure, but I had more in my head. :)
SwordBreaker: What kind of team discussions did you have in order to maintain a consistent direction?
Jack: We started with palette - what instruments we would use in common. We shared patches between us for various things and if someone came up with something thoroughly awesome, that got passed around. There was a lot of me listening to each piece, then having a conversation or email exchange with the composer, then we all had and used dropbox to share composed assets so we always could understand what was being done when and by whom. It worked really well to have that sort of open access to each other's work. Even though most conversations were between me and the guys, they all had access. I think that was pretty important.
Pezman: How much freedom did each composer have with any given piece of music?
Jack: At the beginning, almost complete freedom. I only had to reign them in occasionally or just bit and pieces of what they were doing to make it cohesive. "Oh, instead of that string sound, can you try this one? Or can you use a horn instead of a flute?" that sort of stuff.
Another Soundscape: For the character themes, could you explain how you went about associating certain motifs with certain characters? Did the team have access to the character "profiles" for this?
Jack: Yeah, I gave each composer an entire level of a character to dig into. The guys created those theme themselves. I thought that was the whole reason to work with a group on this game. With 30 levels of gameplay and 16 of those levels being dedicated to the various characters, that was the way to go.
David: The team at BioWare prepared a very detailed, in-depth character analysis for all of us. We also had some history of the characters dating back to Mass Effect 1. We all had many conversations with Jack about this, and he was very open to our exploring the complexities of each character. In fact, it was one of our mandates to create a dynamic score that expressed a wide range of emotions. For "Garrus," I chose to concentrate on a deep rooted emotional element that we're not used to seeing from him. His theme, even when combined with combat material, has a tinge of emotion, because at Garrus's core, he doesn't want to have to go to battle, he's fighting because of the injustice he is seeing. Mordin is a quizzical fellow in a curious world, so even though the mission is serious, the theme and underscore is quirky and intellectual providing among other things, an element of comic relief. With Miranda, her theme and orchestration attempts to demonstrate her strength, but also her vulnerable side, and a sadness that is deep inside her.
Sam: It's really just about getting a feel for a particular character and their personality and motivations, the mood and ambiance of the level, and crafting something that conveys that feel to the player.
Jimmy: What they said. For example, Samara is almost like an Asari monk, so I thought an ethnic, Middle Eastern vibe would help accent that since she's a very spiritually-driven character.
Pezman: How does your knowledge about the location, character, or event you're writing music for impact your composition decisions?
Jack: I think its a visceral thing. You just sort of hear something based on who you think that person or creature or alien or whatever is. I try to steep myself in those types of thoughts about what they are or who they want to become before I write a note. It seems to flow better that way.
David: These are in fact, essential elements for scoring anything properly. We studied pictures, descriptions, and character studies of every level of the game before we wrote a single note. Jack would listen to our cues and comment in depth in this regard. I would say that much of our work was in the re-writing of cues to make sure our orchestrations and choice of melody and harmony complimented these things.
OCR Staff: Who wrote what exactly on the OST?
Jimmy: Well, as Jack mentioned, he wrote the lion's share of the music, and honestly, for all the overseeing he did and his overall level of involvement, Jack could technically be considered a collaborator on every single track, IMO. :) But that aside, here's the general breakdown for the soundtrack:
- The Illusive Man - Jack
- Humans Are Disappearing - Jack
- The Attack - Jack
- The Lazarus Project - Jack
- A Rude Awakening - Jimmy
- The Normandy Reborn - Jimmy
- Miranda - David
- Jacob - Sam
- Freedom's Progress - Jack
- Thane - Jack/David
- Garrus - David
- An Unknown Enemy - Jack
- Samara - Jimmy
- Grunt - Jimmy
- Horizon - Jack
- Tali - Jimmy
- Mordin - David
- The Normandy Attacked - Sam/Jack
- Jack - Sam
- Legion - Sam
- Jump Drive - Jack
- Crash Landing - Jack
- The Collector Base - Jack/Brian
- The End Run - Jack
- Suicide Mission - Jack
- New Worlds - Sam/Jack
- Reflections - Jack
It's worth noting that not every song you hear in the game made it to the soundtrack because there was just so much of it, plus Jack ended up only having a very short amount of time to put the soundtrack versions together, and there were various other cues that we all might have worked on here or there in the game itself, not to mention that some themes were reused here and there, like on the non-essential N7 side missions. Personally, I'm hoping ME2 will get to do something cool like a Game of the Year version or something and we might be able to release those extra tracks somehow, maybe as bonus content for those who buy the that version or whatever :) Even if I wasn't involved, I would still hope we do see a GotY version, considering the game got stellar reviews and is tied for the #2 Xbox game after all!
sfried: Much of Mass Effect's soundtrack consists of orchestral scores but, to me, "The Illusive Man" stood out the most because it was mainly notes on a piano with a simple yet catchy melody. What made you come to the decision of using something more laid back than "epic"?
Jack: Well, first - you never see the Illusive Man in an epic situation! He's always sitting there talking to you, flicking his cigarette. So I wanted to create a more ethereal feeling to him, but still the chord changes denote that he is a man of action who is also reflective and has some sort of mysterious power that you really don't yet understand. I think those were the core elements of how the music needed to work.
0ckeroid: In general, what works did you draw inspiration from when writing?
David: Jack had suggested early on that we check out Vangelis's score to Blade Runner, and I was simply blown away by it. It was huge in helping us integrate the synthetic elements with the orchestral, and clued us in to the idea of instilling emotion into our themes. I had also previously done an orchestral arrangement for Video Games Live based on the score from TRON, so I was also very influenced by the harmonic structure that Wendy Carlos brought to that work. In fact, my entire thematic design in the Garrus level is based on that structure.
Sam: For me, the work I did on ME2 was a kind of maturation of what I'd written in ME1. ME2 is, overall, darker and has heavier orchestral elements, so I essentially just drew influence from ME1 and made it into something heavier.
Patrick Burns: Did you all work from home exclusively, or did you have regular face-to-face confabs with any of the other composers, or even visit BioWare offices?
Jack: Brian and I visited BioWare at the beginning of the project to get everything started. In retrospect, we could have used one or two more face to faces up there to stay on the same page. It was a long production cycle to finish the game and after a while you feel a bit like a satellite way off in the distance. You put a lot of work out there, but you don't hear a lot back. I think more time with the director would have helped everyone stay on the same page. But they are in Edmonton on the upper edges of the Earth, so... :)
David: We did all work in our home studios. Jack, Brian and I live close by, so we had the advantage of some face to face activity that Jimmy and Sam did not. That being said, we were all in constant communication with each other via the internet, and, through our online data storage, were continually commenting on each other's work. I just didn't get to share a late night scotch with Sammy and Jimmy, like I did with Jack. Brian doesn't drink... but he's got a dark side.
Sam: Yeah, I'm isolated from everyone else on the team, so I drank alone. :)
Brian: I did all the implementation out of Jack's studio. This proved very helpful because I could get immediate feedback on the music programming and if we needed to discuss a specific approach to an area of a level we could do so in person. This workflow helped make the implementation process more efficient. It was also beneficial to be in the same studio when Jack or the other composers would have questions about delivering assets for implementation. We were both there to work out those details. The tricky part was when Jack had to mix or compose and I had to implement or mix music in-game at the same time.
Jimmy: I worked from home in Tennessee. I too drank (Yoo-hoo) alone. (Like Brian, I don't drink.) ;)
Arcana: How did you like working by remote collaboration? Did you feel connected with the other aspects of the game's design (art, development)?
Jack: As I said above, I would have preferred more interaction with the developers at BioWare, but I interacted constantly with the audio director. But having more access to the director and the designers and getting their input would have helped the project, I think.
David: I think there is a great challenge to overcome with this aspect of remote collaboration. In particular, coming from a television and film background, I'm used to viewing final footage that is locked in time. It is my way of referencing how well, or not well a piece of music works in a given section, and then how well it translates to a musical/visual segment later on in the show. In game production, you never really know exactly how the end visuals are going to look, and how well your "loop" will function if it is played over and over again until you see the final game. There is much more you have to intuit and plan on in your mind and hope it will manifest successfully.
Sam: The amount of material we're given to work with is fairly substantial, and I felt pretty in tune with the general game design & concepts. In ME1, I got quickly used to scoring music to cinematics that were locked time-wise, but still unfinished renders (as I like to say, people running around in pajamas, dodging cubes and spheres). ;) It requires a little imagination, but I don't find it that difficult.
Jimmy: I wish I'd had the opportunity to do the face-to-face thing, but I think we did OK with the remote collab thing. Though sometimes Jack would just play stuff over the speaker phone during our discussions when he wanted to point something out to me, and that obviously would have been a little easier in person. :)
Another Soundscape: Can you tell us a little bit of the process from idea to final implementation?
Brian: The process in a basic overview is as follows:
- Determine where in the game you want music (acquisition and loyalty missions, cinematics, N7 Missions, hubs, etc.)
- Determine specifically where in each level you want music to play. (Music should start when conversation starts, music starts when enemies appear, music starts when cinematic begins, music transitions to/from combat to tension based on these parameters.)
- Determine the type of music to play/transition to at each marker (conversations, exploration, combat, cinematics, etc.)
- Determine which of those areas should have custom scored music or reused music (editing existing score to fit a scene or game play area that it was not originally intended for)
- Compile this data in a database that includes exactly where music starts and stops, what type of music (explore, combat, etc.) and various other notes about the music, implementation instructions and scripting notes for the level designers at BioWare.
- Level designers take information and insert markers or IDs at the various points in the game based on our instructions. A marker is command they place in the Unreal script to tell the music to start, stop or switch to another piece. These markers are based on location (e.g. you enter an area to explore), cinematic or conversation wheel begins, enemies appear and quantity of enemies (more enemies play full combat track, less enemies play combat low, in between battles play tension)
- Capture game play footage of each level and send to composers to use as basis for scoring.
- Once music is delivered and approved by Jack, begin programming the assets in Wwise. This involved matching each marker/ID scripted by BioWare with the same number in Wwise. So when Unreal says play ID 1, it plays ID 1 in Wwise. Most of the work I did in Wwise, however, was making sure all the music transitioned smoothly between each piece. Whether it be between combat tracks or between a cinematic, then into game play music. This was a very important part of my job.
- Use Wwise to compress all the programming and music tracks into a sound bank which then can be copied onto the Xbox development kit and those changes can be heard when you play a build of the game.
- Play test the level to determine what music, transitions and edits work and don't work.
- Mix music levels in Wwise while playing the game
- Rinse and repeat
How we achieved all of this was pretty cool. We had the pleasure of actually being able to play a working version of each level before we started writing a note of music for the level. Jack and myself would be in the studio with Rob Blake (audio lead at BioWare) on the phone playing through a level together and deciding where we would like music to go and what type of music. Capturing the game play on QuickTime files and making them accessible to the composers helped the composition and implementation process greatly.
Jack: [applause] Well done, Brian!
zircon: Brian, did you basically do all of the editing and implementation work using a tool like FMOD or Wwise? Or did the composers themselves do some of that work too, to prepare their audio assets before handing them over? In other words, how separated was your role from theirs?
Brian: I did all the implementation using Audiokinetic's Wwise. As for editing the music, we instructed the guys how to deliver their tracks instead of having them compose and have me edit the music to make it work in Wwise. Things like, how to deliver a combat track to loop effectively in Wwise, or delivering separate intros and outros for combat tracks to be used as transitions or endings. Or how to deliver the tension, combat low and combat full versions so they transition properly in Wwise. There was a learning curve with this process but by the time everyone had finished a level, it was smooth sailing. This also made my job a lot easier as I could focus on making the music transition smoothly and not be concerned about editing the assets. Wwise does allow you to make non-destructive edits to assets to make them loop or transition better and I did do some of this work, but not much.
OCR Staff: Sam and David, how did you initially get involved with the Mass Effect series?
Sam: It's actually kind of a funny story. Way back in August of 2005, I was asked by BioWare to demo for Mass Effect, and of course I was thrilled to death, but at the same time rather nervous, as I had absolutely no experience with synth stuff (I was 100% orchestral at that point--why the heck were they calling me up?). As it turned out, Jack had recommended me to the BioWare team since he was busy at the time. Shortly after that, things changed and Jack was demoing after all, so we were effectively competing for the same project. :) Of course, being the good sports that we are, we wished each other luck, and got to it. After a long demo process and a lot of waiting, a few months later I found that I did not win the contract, and that Jack did. Jack got to hear my demo tracks and had plenty of good things to say to me about them. Anyway, fast forward to around January 2007. I get a call from my agent, who sounded very serious, and asked if I'm available to work on a project. I think he said they needed me to do like 60 minutes of music in just two months or something. I had other stuff going on at the time, and so this amount of work kinda flipped me out! "Can I think about this?" I asked. "You've got five minutes." Click. Really? No mention of what game this is, either, by the way! A frantic five minutes followed, mentally speaking, and I figured "screw it, it's now or never" and I called my agent back and said yes, I'm in. A few minutes later, I got a call from Jack, telling me he would like me to help out with Mass Effect! And the rest is history. :) Thus began my relationship with Jack, followed by a whole string of amazing experiences and events that have built up my career in a huge way. Oh, and that scary amount of music work needed wound up being 30 minutes in about six months. :)
David: My relationship with Jack goes way back. We had been doing some collaborations on other projects, but once ME1 started, I didn't hear much from him, except when we would chat. I did hear from him one day as the final leg of ME1's production was hitting high gear. There was still a fair amount of cues that needed to be written, and I was brought in to assist the team. Fortunately, Jack and Sam wrote some killer themes that I was able to work with. No sweat, brother... we got it done!!!
OCR Staff: How was your involvement with Mass Effect 2 different than the original? Is there anything you liked more about working on the sequel?
Sam: ME2 was more organized, I think, than ME1. Having all the composers assembled right from the start of the project helped a great deal. Plus, rather than just having us tackle apparently random tracks, in ME2 we all worked on entire levels (I took Jacob, Jack, and Legion). This was a great idea, because it allowed for a more consistent feel and sound throughout an entire level since just one composer was working on it. Worked out beautifully!
David: I was brought on to the Mass Effect 1 team late into the process. Since there was a time crunch, I worked with the themes already created by Jack and Sam. Fortunately, they were killer, so I had a great time with it. I also got to work alongside Richard Jacques who was also brought onto the team. He's a terrific composer and a team player, to boot. We worked together on Battlestations: Pacific after ME1 completed. ME2 was unique because Jack's vision was to bring us all on at the commencement of the project. This meant that we would be able to marinate in the concepts of the game and allow our ideas to develop organically. He was right.
Another Soundscape: Is it easier to write for a sequel to a game the team has already scored because you've established a certain "sound", or is it more of a challenge because you need to re-invent the wheel so to speak? Do changes in members of the team help, or make it harder?
Jack: Well, I think it's fairly unique to have a team compose for games, but I really enjoyed this aspect and felt that there was a certain detachment that allowed me to be more objective regarding the quality of the composition as opposed to writing everything myself and not getting some quality feedback. I don't think it's easier, but I do think it can be effective to write in teams. Changes in the team make it different. Jimmy did some great stuff for example, but I still missed working with Richard on the sequel! Parts of the writing were easier, but we were also charged with writing more orchestral cues, so it was more of a different score in a lot of ways. I like to think differently for each sequel I work on. I think it gives the whole experience more depth.
David: Changes in a lineup can affect the chemistry of team radically. We were all bummed that Rich was not able to rejoin the group, but Jack, who always has his radar on, stumbled across this young guy, Jimmy Hinson, who was full of ability and willingness to be a team player. He not only had no problem fitting in, he brought some seriously killer music to the table, and worked his way into the core of the group. It was a terrific addition. In regards to working on a sequel, it's essential to bring the signature elements of the original game to the sequel, and then find a way to have it evolve... but in an organic way. I mean that the music of the sequel must be rooted in the harmonic and thematic structure of the original before it can grow into what it needs to be next. It's like a timeline of our lives. Who we are now is always based on everything that came before in our lives. Our future is based on our past and our present... but there must be something new that evolves from it.
BardicKnowledge: Do you guys feel any additional pressure working on a AAA, high-publicity game compared to something that doesn't get as much press coverage?
Jack: No. I always feel huge, stomach rumbling pressure when I start writing, no matter how epic it is or isn't. I think I actually like that in some weird way! I think ME2 had added pressure associated with it because it's a sequel though. And it was hugely anticipated. Wait... yeah, more pressure!
David: It kicks us into high gear, but frankly, we give it everything we've got no matter what the project is. There's no other way, really.
Brian: There was one moment when I was sitting in front of my computer working and thinking to myself, "Adam Sessler is stoked about this game, I better make this shit sound awesome!" I don't think I ever felt pressure (mainly because I was way too busy), but I was definitely aware that there were a lot of fans out there with high expectations, that the music implementation needed to better than the ME1, that Wall of Sound was one of the few companies doing out-of-house implementation and we wanted to show that it can be done and done well!
Sam: Definitely a little nerve-wracking working on such a huge game, and a huge franchise! Like David said, I think we give it 110% no matter what, but for me, yes, there is a lot more pressure working on AAA titles. So much more is riding on the line, and there are a handful of times I question the work I'm doing, and think to myself, "I hope I don't screw this up." I feel that way with pretty much any major musical undertaking.
OCR Staff: Jimmy, how did you get the gig?
Jimmy: Kind of a long story, I guess, but it really started at the VGL show in Louisville, KY in 2008. I thought it would be cool to do a remix of Jack's work since he didn't really have any of his music remixed on OCR yet. So along with Greg Michalec (Sole Signal, formerly Audix) and Brian Arnold (Tweek/Tweex), we put together the Jade Empire remix and presented it to him there. Jack was super cool about it, and told us in secret that we ought to take a shot at some Mass Effect remixes since ME2 would be coming up for him soon. So to make a long story short, I sent him a remix shortly after and he really liked it--enough so that he actually called to ask if he could send it to BioWare! Anyway, we talked a bit, but work on ME2 was still a ways off, so after that initial call I was basically on standby for the next several months. Jack is a super busy dude, so I'd periodically send him emails, and I even remixed a few more tracks just to let him know I was still there if he needed me. Eventually, I drove up to the Richmond, VA show in early 2009 (VGL's 100th show!) to see how things were going for him. I kind of got the impression from Jack that BioWare really wasn't going for a 'remix vibe' for ME2's OST, but fortunately for me I'd actually given him some non-remixes I'd recently done that were intended for a production music library, and they were all of a very dark/mysterious kind of mood. I guess that's where I got really lucky, because as Jack mentioned at that show ME2 is kind of the darker installment of the Mass Effect trilogy, and I guess he was impressed enough with those tracks that he thought I'd be an asset to the team after all. So maybe a month or so after the Richmond show, he formally brought me on board. I tried to see if he'd be interested in Greg and Brian coming on as well, but I think he was probably already nervous enough about taking on one person so heavily involved in OCR (and a "rookie" at that!), which could have been a potential NDA nightmare for him (which he explained to me VERY thoroughly), haha. :)
Flare4War: When you found out you would be working with industry giant Jack Wall and his team, were you intimidated?
Jimmy: Hopefully not outwardly so, but yes. :)
Dj Mokram: How did Jimmy handle the pressure?
Jack: Jimmy is just a talented guy. He doesn't know how talented he is yet. He should. I keep thinking that I'd like to write an album of just plain old music with him. He's got such a great ear and chops for song structure. I really love how he can write a piece of music. I listen to what he does and I want to jump in and produce and co-write every time I hear something. It's always so close and I can hear how great it could be. He'll eventually get there on his own for sure. He's fabulously prolific. Frankly, I'd love to do a bunch of remixes with him of some of the ME2 music. I think he and I could do some damage. For that matter, I'd love to involve all of the guys in a project like that, but it's a pretty busy time right now!
Villainelle: Jimmy, could you talk about what the workflow was like with Jack Wall and his team? How much did you know about the plot and details of Mass Effect 2 while composing?
Jimmy: It was great, I thought. I continually drew inspiration from the team, whether from their own music (we all had access to each other's work and files) or sometimes just by asking for advice - Sam and David were both really great for that. And Brian was great, because he always had good stuff to say about the music, which was reassuring. He'd get really pumped up about it sometimes, and it was definitely a positive spiral. As for Jack, I'm just amazed at how good of an ear he has! He would hear even the most subtle details and offer such great feedback. Despite the fact that he had a bazillion different things to listen to and manage on top of his own writing, it's just amazing that he never once seemed to get any sort of ear fatigue. He really knows how to get the most out of productions.
As for the plot and details, we each had access to pretty much the entire game content, whether it was the story line, character profiles, rough playthrough videos, etc., and even potential character relationships! But me personally, I mostly avoided looking at anything beyond what I absolutely had to know to write my tracks. I loved ME1 and I still wanted to experience the game as anyone else would, without any real spoilers (though it was really hard to resist sometimes). The ending sequence was incredible for me, I'm glad I didn't sneak a peak at any of it before hand, it blew me away when I played it. I really wanted to, but Brian actually helped me abstain by mentioning how awesome it was going to be once finished.
Villainelle: What was it like playing such a hugely-anticipated game with a passionate fanbase, and hearing your own compositions during gameplay?
Jimmy: Feels great! And objectively, it's cool to hear which pieces ended up working really well, and which ones I think I may have done a bit differently after hearing them. All in all, I'm really happy with how well everything sounded in game, and that goes for the whole soundtrack.
OCR Staff: Brian, you've got a solid history in the video game music scene with Game Music Radio under your belt. How does it feel to be directly involved with the music in a game as opposed to being a gamer/listener?
Brian: It's a different experience for sure. Having had some previous experience working on Myst IV: Revelation as music implementer and some writing on Rise of the Kasai (both with Wall of Sound) I did have some perspective on game development that helped me see the overall scope of the music development process for ME2. Being directly involved in making a game, let alone a game that you are a huge fan of is mind blowing! Now the only drawback to being a game developer is that you know what's going to happen in the story. As a gamer, I don't read spoilers or even many game previews because I feel playing a game for the first time is all about discovery. So knowing the ending and everything in between took the discovery out of the experience when I finally played ME2 but it's well worth the trade off!. Subsequently, I found myself taking notes/fixes on music implementation while playing through the entire game. :)
OCR Staff: Regarding the music implementation, how did you feel about the game and music as you saw it develop?
Brian: One of the things that Jack did an excellent job of was choosing which composer to score each level. There was some magic going on there because David's, Sam's, Jimmy's and Jack's style and vibe of their compositions fit perfectly with their respective levels. When you're putting together the musical scope of a game this big, there's no way of foreseeing how it's all going to fit together. Is it all going to sound cohesive? Will it all sound like Mass Effect? But, as the process carried on and I played through these levels over and over, the music became a defining characteristic to each level. So much that when I tried to reuse a piece from Garrus Acquisition in Thane Loyalty mission for example, I couldn't help but think of Garrus. Since we reused the acquisition music for all of the loyalty missions and for the most part, matched the loyalty with the acquisition music (Jack Acq and Jack Loy = same music), this wasn't a huge deal. An example where this didn't work as well was Legion's acquisition (Derelict Reaper). There, you hear Sam's music while fighting husks the whole time. But when you play Legion's loyalty mission, you are fighting geth the whole time. So the acquisition music didn't work for Legion's loyalty mission because that music made me think of stomping husks. So I used mostly Tali's music since you're fighting geth in her level (and sprinkled a bit of "Miranda" and "Thane" as well).
After Jack finished scoring the main Suicide mission, that's where the scope of the game really came together. That piece in my opinion, defined all the trials, challenges and decisions that Shepard had faced from ME1 through ME2 to finally arrive at the Collector base. It such a powerful piece and we used that theme extensively in the end game.
OCR Staff: What's it like to play the game in bits and pieces and then compare it to the finished product? Without any spoilers, what were some of your favorite pieces to implement in the game?
Brian: Yeah, playing the levels during development without any reference of where I was in the story or chronology of the game wasn't too bad. I was more concerned with the technical aspects of how the music played in the game than the story. When you play bits and pieces of a game out of order you lose any connection to the story and scope of the game. The one thing we didn't get a chance to do was do a complete play through from start to finish. But from a fan aspect, I was glad to have a little bit of discovery left when I actually played the game for the first time. What we did have to pay attention in regards to chronology of the game was when we started reusing music. So for "Horizon" (which happens after you acquire about 5 henchmen), we didn't want to use music that the player hadn't already heard before. I think we ended up using stuff from "Freedom's Progress," "The Attack," and then some custom music from Jimmy.
Some of my favorite scenes to implement were programming music for the Renegade and Paragon interrupts. On Thane's level when you push the guard over the ledge. (A conversation piece looped during the wheel, then, if you chose the Renegade interrupt, music would transition to an Interrupt piece that scored the guard falling... awesome) Also, on Tali, at the boss battle where you can tell Kal Reegar to fire his rocket launcher, there's a music clip that Jimmy wrote that is totally kick ass and transitions seamlessly into his boss battle cue. I laugh every time I hear it, it's so good! All of the end game levels were definitely fun and very challenging level to design and implement. I mentioned script markers/IDs earlier, we had about 36 IDs in that level. Lots of transitions.
OCR Staff: Are there any particular tracks in the game, your own or otherwise, that you're especially proud/fond of?
Jack: My own favorites are "Suicide Mission," "End Run," "Illusive Man" and "Thane." For the guys - "Normandy Reborn," "Samara," "Garrus" and "Jacob."
Sam: I dig pretty much everything, but my favorites include Jack's somber cello theme, and the new romance theme he wrote (love it!). I think "Samara" is my favorite of Jimmy's stuff, and David did a superb job with "Garrus."
David: I love Jack's music at the end of the game... that final cue really has the granduer and tone that brings everything together and makes you feel like "everything we've done in both games has led to this very moment." It's great music.
Brian: "The Collector Base" (only because the ambient cue was my single compositional contribution to the game :), Garrus combat 1 (major grooving, ass kicking music... makes me smile), Tali acquisition combat 3 (the combat just before the boss), Thane acquisition combat c (bridge end combat), "Normandy Reborn" gave me chills, "Suicide Mission," "Illusive Man," "The Attack," Samara boss battle, Miranda's end cinematic, "Unknown Enemy" (with the Seeker Swarm theme, really great), probably many others.
Jimmy: "Suicide Mission," Legion's combat music, Garrus's combat music, and the Collector riff I'm all especially fond of. I'm especially proud of the "Normandy Reborn" and the end sequence combat stuff which isn't actually on the OST but I think turned out really good in game.
The Biznut: How much time did each individual on the team spend on composing and mastering? Did each composer do his own mastering, or was that centralized?
Jack: All mastering and mixing of the game was done at BioWare. We only tried to give them volume levels that were similar across all of the cues. We wrote most of the music from sometime in July through mid-November. I wrote some of the cues between March and April for E3.
The Biznut: What software/hardware was used by whom for this project?
Jack: I switched to Logic from Digital Performer for this project and I will never go back! It is so much more musical in every way. Now that 64-bit is here, it is the greatest system ever. I have the Mac Pro 8-core as well as 2 loaded up PCs running V-STack and GigaStudio respectively. I use 4 monitors to view all of my plugins and a 46" flatscreen to view the movies. I hate to dig for plugin control.
Sam: I use a Mac Pro, quad-core 2.66GHz with 5GB RAM, running Logic Pro 8 (though I just upgraded to Logic Pro 9 a few weeks ago). Virtual instruments out the wazoo: Vienna Symphonic, Project SAM, Omnisphere, and good stuff from Arturia (Analog Factory Experience, CS-80V, Minimoog V, etc.) The MIDI keyboard I use is a Studiologic SL-990XP, which I think has the greatest key action ever. My studio monitors (speakers) are Event Precision 8's.
David: I use a Power Mac, dual processor 2.5, with Logic 8. A slew of plug-ins including Vienna Special Edition , EastWest Composers Pack, Omnispehre, Stylus, Atmsophere, Analog Factory, CS-80, Logic's bundled plugins, etc.
Jimmy: Using Logic would have been easier for collaborating since that what Jack, Sam, and David use, but I did everything in FL Studio 9. I used a lot of the same plugins though. Spectrasonics stuff, lots of EastWest, Arturia, Kore 2 and various expansions, and a few others including zircon's Sitar Nation library. It's worth noting that Spectrasonics is going to be doing a Pro News feature on us since we used a lot of Omnisphere/Stylus/Trilian. We swapped a few patches back and forth during the project. What I think was funny was that there were a few times when, out of literally thousands upon thousands of sounds to choose from, I'd occasionally hear my colleagues using the same patches that I was, without any knowledge beforehand. So I guess that's a sign we were all on the same wavelength. :)
Avaris: Were any live performances recorded or were all traditional instruments sample-based?
the prophet: It's generally uncommon to hear odd meter for a major portion of a game's soundtrack, but there's a large section or so of 7/4 throughout, particularly at the end. Was that a conscious decision, or did it just work out that way?
Jack: I love odd times and I love 6. I just gravitate to that. It keeps you off-balance and if you have your accents right, it feels great. It's a personal choice.
sfried: Do you think ME/ME2 could use more leitmotifs? When one of your former crew members in Mass Effect 2 met you, there was a slight homage made to the previous game, but I'm sort of saddened that there weren't many more recognizable themes that played back as well. Will we ever hear more of the elevator music?
Jack: It's hard to do that in games. Yes, you are right. I'd like more of that as well, but I think we make a mistake when we are rewarded for writing more music. I'd like to change that in the future. I think more structure around leitmotif is a good idea and I did go for that, but unfortunately, there wasn't a lot of returning to much in ME2. The themes for the various characters like Sovereign were not able to be used for this one, but maybe ME3?
sfried: Will we ever hear remixes of any tracks, or even a complementary album (similar to how No More Heroes had a Dark Side album consisting of remixes)? Some of us don't want to wait for an ME3 album just to hear some rearrangements. :)
Jack: I think that's a great idea!
Ramikadyc: How did you feel about the breathtaking launch trailer of the game (or any other promotional media) featuring music that was composed by completely different musicians? Did you have any input at all whether or not your team should create their own piece specifically for it, or was the decision made independently?
Jack: Wow, from what I gather, those were done when we were crunching at the end. No one on the dev team was even working on those. It's just an impossibility when everyone is trying to finish the game. Marketing has to get their stuff done. I think they did a good job on it, but I would love to have heard the music from the game in there just to be cohesive, but people really liked the music that was in there.
atmuh: There are plenty of people now who - no matter what they're playing - will always disable the in-game music in favor of whatever they've ripped to the console or their MP3 player. How do you guys feel about that?
Jack: Well, I think they are not really getting the full impact of the game. It's their choice, but I would never do that. It would be like watching a movie and muting the film score so you could hear some other track you like. Strange to me, but I guess some people want to do that.
Chernabogue: Will the music of the Mass Effect series be played at Video Games Live?
The Biznut: What were the biggest challenges to this project? Were there any significant setbacks?
Jack: Not having much feedback from the director and the rest of the dev team. Everyone was so busy staying on schedule, that no one is really to blame. The end of the production was insane. 20 hour days, 7 days a week for a month or so. Ouch. Also, until Cindy helped us with the database, the asset tracking was impossible. We overcame that sometime in August but getting up to speed in July was intense.
Brian: The end game stuff was a huge challenge technically in regards to implementation. It took a month from design to final implementation just for the end game levels. Because there were so many "possible" outcomes to your henchmen, the music had to be flexible enough to transition seamlessly based on the choices you made or didn't make. I would spoil the game if I went into detail, but what is happening technically under the hood as you play through the end game is extremely complex. Also, creating an effective and efficient system of compiling, tracking, and monitoring all of the implementation instructions and changes and managing all of the hundreds of assets took several months. Initially it slowed us down, but eventually we gained that time back because we were more organized.
Cyril the Wolf: Are there any tracks that you wish you could have spent just a BIT more time on? In the same vein, do deadlines dictate how you prioritize themes, tracks, etc?
Jack: All of it. Always. :)
DJ Mokram: How many tracks ended up in the bin for the final 27 to exist?
Jack: There was approximately 160 minutes of music written for the game. I wouldn't put much else on a standalone soundtrack though.
Flare4War: Jimmy, did you talk about OC ReMix with the other guys on the team? If so, how did they react?
Jimmy: Of course, I'll pimp OCR until the end of my days. As for how they reacted, I dunno, maybe I should let them answer. Guys, what do you think of OCR?
David: I'm learning more and more about you knuckleheads... but if you're anything like James... I have deep concerns for each of you.
Brian: The OCR community is incredible! I regret not being more active. The music they churn out is excellent. Many of the game industry's future game composers exist on OCR.
Miyakan & Pezman: Jimmy, how different was it to be composing for a game rather than remixing pieces from a game?
Jimmy: Well, hard to say beyond what you can probably imagine. Remixing/rearranging, even by OCR standards, means that you always have a motif to fall back on. Composing generally means you have to come up with something on your own (that no one else has done before) so it can get a little tricky. But it's highly rewarding when you get a good, solid, original idea and it just spills out and you're like "sweet, this is working!" Fortunately also, I did have a couple opportunities to utilize my OCR skillz in working in a reprise of a pre-written theme here and there too. :)
swordofdestiny: What are some composers/artists/songs that inspired you guys as you were becoming composers?
Jack: Peter Gabriel, Hans Zimmer, John Williams, U2, Jerry Goldsmith, Genesis (early- up to about "... and then there were three."), James Horner, Mozart, Beethoven, probably a lot more, but that's what pops into my mind.
Sam: Hmm, the answer to that has changed over the years, but when I was first getting into writing music (in general, not for games), I was about 18 years old. At that time, I'd say I was listening to a lot of Depeche Mode, Yanni (don't laugh, he was good back then!), Danny Elfman, Ray Lynch. Years later, once I was more interested in video game music, I got into specific game composers. Rob King's work on Heroes of Might & Magic III was paramount to my getting involved in game music. Michael Hoenig, Jeremy Soule, and Inon Zur were also influences of mine back in the day.
David: My background goes back to the classics: Beethoven, Bach, Brahms. I'm also moved by Stravinsky, Copland, Mahler, Leonard Bernstein. My rock background was very distinct: Early Genesis, Yes, Gentle Giant, Tull, Return to Forever, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Beatles, Led Zep. My film composer mentors include Steiner, Korngold, Hermann, Bernstein, Williams, Goldsmith... the list goes on and on.
Brian: As far as film guys go, Zimmer, Howard, Williams, Giacchino nail it every time for me. I'm inspired by minimalism, so I enjoy scores like Requiem for a Dream. Bear McCreary (Battlestar Galactica) and Sean Callery (24) are my favorite TV guys! I'm a fan of Nine Inch Nails, Björk, Skinny Puppy and other electronic artists. And too many game composers to list!
Jimmy: The usual, John Williams, James Horner, James Newton Howard, John Powell, Hans Zimmer, BT, etc., etc., etc., and pretty much any game composer from any game I've remixed music from (including these guys) and countless others. Also, a good handful of folks here on OCR, but I'm not going to name names because I'm sure I'd accidentally leave someone out. Also, I'd hate for DarkeSword to flag this as a "favorites interview." ;)
OCR Staff: David, you've done lots of work for TV, film, and production libraries. How do these compare to working on video games like Mass Effect?
David: When you compose for film or television, you often score fully edited scenes once production has completed. No guess work. Game music is composed while the game is being created, and can change as the production develops. Lots of flexibility required. Where in games you create music loops for gameplay, TV and film have defined, timed segments that music is custom created for. The closest comparison to this in games are cutscenes (the segments that are not interactive). The challenge in game scoring is to make gameplay cues feel as tailored and custom as a film or TV cue, and move seamlessly in and out of the cutscenes. Jack and Brian spent endless hours developing an extraordinary implementation language on ME2 that accomplishes this goal really well using the Wwise sound engine.
OCR Staff: Sam, you also scored the Bring Down the Sky DLC for the first Mass Effect. Tell us what that was like for you - are there any challenges specific to scoring for DLC?
Sam: That was my first experience working directly for BioWare, since with ME1 I was hired by and worked with Jack. It was very similar to working on ME1: BioWare delivered screenshots and plot outlines to me, and the musical direction was basically "do your thing." :) I don't think there were any challenges specific to working on a DLC, really. Musically and production-wise, it felt the same as working on ME1, except that it's its own self-contained story. It was a fun experience!
Kidd Cabbage: What other skills are necessary/helpful in the gaming industry, aside from simply being able to write good harmonies and melodies? (synthesis, production, etc.)
Jack: Knowing the ins and outs of how game mechanics work. They are of paramount importance in game music development. However, a great composer can just write good music if there are implementers who understand these things and also an audio director who can effectively communicate what is needed.
Cyril the Wolf: Beyond musical inspiration, are there any favorite foods, drinks, or hobbies that help you through the long creative process? What's the best way to unwind when composing?
Jack: Coffee on the front side and martini on the back. :) In between, you have to eat good, healthy food and pace yourself. The creative process can drain you and I, in particular, need the right nutrients and exercise to keep it all running well.
Sam: Energy drinks are sometimes part of my creative ritual. I find that the downtime in between working on music is important, too, to foster creativity. One of my favorite ways to unwind is just have a full night of gaming, because, believe it or not, I hardly ever have time for it, so it's kind of a treat.
Jimmy: Frozen pizza and Yoo-hoo. And killing zombies.
Another Soundscape: When will we know if you guys are scoring Mass Effect 3?
Jack: I guess you'll know when BioWare announces it. We really can't say.
OCR Staff: What are some other projects you're currently working on, video game related or otherwise? Anything you're allowed to talk about?
Jack: Not at the moment, but I am producing the VGL TV special. I'm hoping that helps to change perceptions in a global way about video games. It's going to look and sound phenomenal!
Sam: Wish I could talk about them! I've got two or three possibilities at the moment that I can't really talk about, but I'll go public as soon as I can.
OCR Staff: Anything else you'd like to share about the overall Mass Effect 2 experience?
Jack: It was deeply challenging and I want to thank the folks at BioWare for letting me be a part of it. I want to thank Sam, Brian, David, Jimmy and Cindy for making it all work!
David: The most gratifying aspect of the experience was clearly the collaborative process, and working with my brothers. They say the journey is greater than the destination, and in this case, the journey slaughtered, and the final product continues to bring us great pride in what we accomplished. We are proud of our work and consider it an honor that we get to do this for a living.
All: Hey OC ReMix, thanks for reaching out to us and showing interest in our experience!