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Composing For Video Games

Jack Wall
Published February 2003
By Mark Wherry

Jack Wall is a leading light in the video game soundtrack industry, where his credits include the latest chapter in the best-selling Myst series of computer games.

"Over 50 percent of the music done for games is horrible, and the sound design as well, it's absolutely horrendous," says Jack Wall, a games composer who's currently leading a double life, promoting the importance of high-quality music and audio in the games industry. Having written the music for Myst III: Exile, the latest instalment in one of the best-selling PC games series of all time, he has a clear idea of what works within this industry, with his Exile score-winning Game Industry News' Soundtrack Of The Year 2002 award and generating sales of 25,000 copies of the soundtrack CD.

Jack Wall: Composing For Video GamesJack Wall, composer.So how do you get to work on what Presto, the games studio responsible for Myst III, described as the computer game equivalent of the next Star Wars film? "I'll be honest: I got the job because I knew the guy who was producing the game. However, because the Myst franchise was so valuable, nobody was willing to take one person's word for it, so I had to do an audition.

"There were five or six composers brought in to audition for the game and the committee asked for three pieces of music: a main theme, a secondary theme, and a piece that was scored directly to picture. They also asked for a design, basically 'How's the music going to work in the game?' I really wanted this game, so I was happy to do the audition, although I don't think we actually used any of that music in the final game."

Starting Point

When the time came to actually start writing the music, Jack began to immerse himself in the world of Myst (see the 'Going Home' box, at the end) and wrote the main title piece very early in the process, in June 2000. "It was a really easy process, and I wrote the piece over about two weeks — it just came to me and I didn't force myself to do it within a particular timeframe like I seem to do with everything else. Then in September, I started getting the cinematics for the game. We were going to record the music for the cinematics with an orchestra in December, so I worked pretty much straight from September through to December 4th as the cinematics came in. We recorded a choir midway through December, mixed all the cinematics, and that part of the project was finished before the Christmas break. In the second week of January, I started working on the 'in game' music and that took about a month and a half, and then in April we started working on implementing all the music.

Jack Wall"From a music standpoint, the brilliance of this game and the crew that put it together was that they wanted the composer involved in the very beginning — they didn't wait until the last couple of months of production. It's not that I did a lot of work in the beginning stages, but I was involved in design meetings and that gave everybody a sense of how the music was going to work. I was lucky in that everyone, including the programmer, the designer, the producer and the head of the development studio all knew me, and I'd actually ask them for their ideas: 'What do you want to see in the game? How shall we design the music? What's possible? What's not possible?' So that thought process was going on before production even began, which was useful."

Good Artists Copy...

"I search for influences for every project I work on because I just love to rip people off as much as I possibly can!" laughs Jack. "But seriously, I think it's important to take the best of what's been done for a particular genre that you're working on and try to improve on it somehow and make it unique to that project, and that's how I work. 'Theme From Edanna' was directly influenced by Peter Gabriel because we've got the [Chapman] Stick in there and lots of serious percussion going on — that whole groove is totally a percussion section, there are no samples in there. I just had this guy come in and play and he was just amazing — he had these amazing instruments, blocks, tree trunks and all kinds of stuff, and we were just going for a really organic sound. But it turned out to be a very strange piece of music and yet somewhat familiar, which is kind of the idea with the whole Myst series anyway: you want to make sure that every element of it is completely alien yet with some degree of familiarity to it.

The Myst series of adventure games has proved hugely successful.The Myst series of adventure games has proved hugely successful."As a composer, you're always influenced by what you're listening to at any given time. I went to see a concert with the LA Philharmonic of music by the Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas just before I started working on the score. There was a huge percussion line, about 20 of them, it so powerful and of course I thought 'I've got to do that at some point'. So I ended up using a lot of percussion in the main title for Myst III: I went to a friend's studio in Venice Beach. My friend, Steve Forman, has got a big loft full of percussion instruments, and we just tracked and layered a bunch of percussion grooves."

An interesting choice of instrument for the score as a whole is the duduk. "Yes, it's funny, the duduk is everywhere now after Gladiator. At the time I started working on Myst, the only place you could hear the duduk was Peter Gabriel's 'Passion' and the score to The Last Temptation Of Christ, and I had just kept it in the back of my mind, thinking 'I've got to use that instrument sometime'. With Myst, I wanted to have that exotic, mellow, mournful voice, so I found a musician named Chris Bleth here in LA who's a master woodwind player, and actually studied the duduk with the great Djivan Gasparyan [who worked and performed on the Gladiator score with Hans Zimmer]."

Orchestration

The Myst III score was largely written at Jack's home studio, so I asked him about his equipment and sounds of choice. "I use a G4 Mac with Digital Performer because I've just been using that forever, and I have GigaStudio on a PC. I use the Garritan Orchestral Strings library, and I've got a couple of Akai samplers and a JV2080 stuffed full of cards. I'm looking forward to the Vienna Symphonic Library — I heard a demo of it at the AES show here in LA in October and it blew my mind. It's all about trying to make the music sound as real as you can before fleshing it out into the orchestration.

Jack's studio is based around Akai samplers and a G4 Mac running MOTU's Digital Performer.Jack's studio is based around Akai samplers and a G4 Mac running MOTU's Digital Performer."Almost the entire score is real players, even the synth stuff, and alot of it was played by a guy named Judd Miller who has an Electronic Valve Instrument (EVI), which is like a wind instrument, but it's got valves like a trumpet. He brings in racks of samples and we just go through them; I have melodies and stuff for him to play and we just record it — it has nothing to do with MIDI. When he leaves, his sounds go with him, so I just record him and then sort it out later.

"I worked on the orchestration for the pieces we were going to record with the Northwest Sinfonia in Seattle with my orchestrator Steve Zuckerman. I'd basically take a MIDI file and work it out so all the voices were separate before giving it to Steve, and he'd send it back to me with his ideas. I'd change a few things and send it back and we went through seven or eight passes for the main title, adopting a similar process for everything else. Finally, I recorded all the MIDI tracks I was going to keep for the final mix onto Tascam DA88s, along with many audio tracks, including certain percussion tracks, the duduk, and the boy soprano. I took these tapes to Seattle and we sync'ed it up with a click and recorded the orchestra on top of it."

Taking a step back, I was interested to ask Jack about his working relationship with Steve, and how the role of the orchestrator complemented his role as the composer. "The composition was finished, so it was just a matter of getting the orchestra sound as big as possible when it came to the final orchestration. With the budget, we can have only so many musicians, so we needed to be careful with the voicings and how we split the musicians.

"The orchestration was basically 80 percent complete when I gave it to Steve since I had to do full mockups for the producers, but Steve would take it and make suggestions that I would never think of. That was really necessary to get the kind of sound I was looking for — I couldn't have done it on my own, I'm not a master orchestrator by any means. I know how to voice things, I know how I want it to sound, which is really important in this scenario, but I don't have four years at Juilliard studying this stuff, going through the trial and error process, whereas Steve does it every day, so it was a great learning experience for me."

Since composition is usually one person's vision, I wondered if Jack valued the collaboration with an extra person when it came to the orchestration. "It gives you an objective viewpoint on what you're trying to do, and Steve was amazing because he never tried to change my composition, only to make it sound as good as possible for the size orchestra we had. He knew exactly what his job was and was really clear about what wasn't going to work, even when I was insisting something would be fine. I'd say 'It's going to work, it's great, it's exactly what I want,' and he might say, 'No it's not going to work, you have to trust me.' But he'd explain why it wouldn't sound the way I thought it would and offer an alternative, which was really constructive. That was the first time I'd worked with Steve, although we're working together on a number of other projects now, and I wouldn't do anything without him in the future."

DIY Conducting

Jack Wall conducts the Northwest Sinfonia through a rousing rendition of 'The Wheels Of Wonder'.Jack Wall conducts the Northwest Sinfonia through a rousing rendition of 'The Wheels Of Wonder'.In addition to writing and producing the music for Myst III, Jack also picked up the baton and conducted the orchestra for the recording session — an experience he describes as being "second to very little".

"I started learning to conduct by studying with Brad Keimach, who was a student of Leonard Bernstein's and is a very good conductor himself. After that, I started talking about doing orchestral music for every project I was doing, and bugging the producers and directors until finally one of them, Dan Irish, who is a good friend of mine, relented. He got the budget together and we made it happen for Myst III, so at that point there was no way I wasn't going to conduct — I knew I wanted that level of control."

Given that the composer is effectively the first person to start the process of creating music, and the conductor is the last person to influence that music before it is performed by musicians, I wondered if Jack felt there were any advantages to undertaking both roles. "It was so amazingly natural to be right there and communicate directly with the orchestra. I've been involved in situations where I've been talking through a conductor, and it's a completely different experience, not nearly as immediate since it's another layer of complication to prevent getting the proper message across. Conducting your own music is very useful in that way, just in terms of logistics, since you have a limited amount of time and you want to make sure that every moment is used efficiently with the orchestra. After all, it's costing you about a hundred dollars a minute!

"I did the whole score in four hours, and although there was only 24 minutes of actual orchestral music to record, that works out to about six minutes an hour. Usually you can record three to five minutes an hour if you're lucky, so we just did a pretty good job. The team I put together was really top-notch. The game designer came up to me afterwards and said, 'I will never think about music the same way again,' and I felt like finally, I got my message across! The fight has always been: music is important, you don't know how important it is, but it's going to make a huge difference in the game. The problem is that people are so used to hearing mediocre music in games, or even out-and-out bad music, that there's nothing really put into it, there's no planning, so this was really different."

Putting It All Together

Once all the music was complete, including the full orchestra and choral recordings to accompany the video elements of the game, along with the other 'in game' music Jack had produced, the next job was to actually integrate this into the game itself. Given the interactive nature of computer games, where the story isn't told linearly, I was interested to ask Jack about he worked with the programmers to actually integrate his music into the game.

"When I did the mix for each piece of music, I would do passes of every single element separately, take them into Pro Tools and cut everything up into their elemental pieces. After that, I'd write a script for the programmer: for example, 'This file named pad.wav should be played all the time looping, cut out after 20 minutes and be silent for five minutes; this other file should play on top of the pad, but should only happen when the player does X; and the melody file should play in sequence between 60 and 90 seconds apart randomly.' Of course, you could never predict exactly how the final results was going to sound, so we would test it for about 20 minutes and say 'This is working pretty well, let's leave it alone for now,' and move to the next piece and program that one — it took about three weeks to do that process."

So does Jack bear in mind this fragmented approach to producing interactive music when composing? "Not really — my basic production methodology was just to write a piece of music, because you can't think interactively — you have to think linearly, and somehow make the linear pieces fit into the game. That's my feeling, at least, I don't know how to make it work any other way. I would just write a piece of music that I wanted to hear, so if you listen to the soundtrack CD, that's kind of my starting point."

Future Potential

With the success of Myst III behind him, Jack has remained active in the games industry as both an activist for game soundtracks (see the 'Who Wants To Be In My GANG?' box) and as a composer. "I'm currently working on an orchestral score for Wrath — an epic strategy/fighting game. I just finished Ben Hur for Microids in France, and I worked on the cinematics for a Sony Computer Entertainment game called Mark Of Kri."

Since the release of Myst III, the studio responsible, Presto, decided to call it a day because of the increasing demands and budgets required for games development. However, Myst fans will be pleased to know that another Myst sequel is being discussed with another development studio in Montreal, and Jack is talking to them about the soundtrack.

With the technology and entertainment industries in a constant state of change, Jack is taking a pragmatic view of the future. "I expect at some point video games will be the dominant entertainment medium because of the way the industry is growing. With the set top boxes and consoles sitting in your living room next to the television set, they're going to have Internet access, and I imagine it will be the central place to get your entertainment from. So my feeling is that if these games are going to live in the same space as where you're listening to your movies, they had better sound just as good."

Going Home

Jack Wall

Myst III: Exile allows the user to specify how much of Jack Wall's music they want to hear.

As the name implies, Myst III: Exile is the third game in the Myst series, at the same time being the first to be developed by a studio other than Cyan, the creators of the original Myst and Riven games. The soundtracks for Myst and Riven were composed by Cyan co-founder Robyn Miller, and although Jack took the music for Myst III in a different direction to the original scores, the main theme and other elements have the sense of evolving from Miller's scores for Myst and Riven.

"I really wanted to make sure there was some bridge to this title, so I went through both of the soundtracks to Myst and Riven and listened carefully and took notes on every single piece and tried to put together a palette of instruments that could be reused in the next score. I felt that the palette of instruments was one thing we could do to bridge the series. Robyn said 'Listen, do what you want to do because I had no idea what I was doing and just came up with this stuff, so don't feel like you have to do what I did.' But there was no melody at all in Myst and Riven, so that was something I really wanted to change — I wanted to make the score have a life of its own with motifs and character, and place-based themes. Basically, I wanted recognisable pieces of music, which Robyn didn't — he wanted it all to be completely ambient, because they found that any time they introduced melody into the earlier games, the melody would take over and take your head out of the world.

"Since the technology was more advanced with Myst III, we scripted the melodies to play sporadically, so they'd be there, but not enough to catch your attention and ruin your experience. Later, we even programmed the music to go away every now and again, which was Greg Uhler's [the producer's] idea right at the very end and I was totally into that. Many people weren't, thinking, 'We're writing this music, people need to listen to it,' but I'd rather they listened to it as much as they want to, rather than just switching it off."

Who Wants To Be In My GANG?

Thanks to his experience in the games industry, and his earlier involvement in studios as an engineer and producer before becoming a composer, Jack is ideally suited for his role as Senior Director and board member of GANG, the Game Audio Network Guild.

Jack Wall"The idea of GANG is to raise awareness of the importance of the music used in games, promoting excellence in interactive audio, and trying to get people to just be aware there are options when it comes to interactive audio, music and sound. It really should be paid attention to because these days the very best games have the best audio.

"At least people are aware of it now and they know people are paying attention to it now, and that makes a difference when they're making decisions about who's going to do the work. Many of the guys who are doing music and sound in games grew up on computers listening to basic soundcards, and let's not call that hi-fi! It came from awful and inauspicious beginnings, but consoles can handle great audio, the PCs can handle great audio now, let's make great audio from now on and stop this nonsense. Let's stop talking about how do we do it for cheaper and let's talk about how we make better games and sell more games by doing better soundtracks.

"There's so much opportunity out there. In terms of soundtracks, Myst III sold well and I've heard that Metal Gear Solid 2 sold over 100,000, and there was no marketing effort behind it. I mean, score-only film soundtracks don't do that well, they'll sell 10,000 if they're lucky. But these are just score-only game soundtracks selling 100,000 units, so there's real opportunity.

"If people say 'Well, we don't have the budget,' we'll say, 'We're self-liquidating because we're going to do a soundtrack, it's going to sell X number of copies and probably pay for itself, plus you have cross-marketing potential. And that's the way people are starting to think about the music as an ancillary product with a life of its own."

So it's not just a case of saying to people 'I think you should have better music,' but more 'If you have better music there are other revenue streams you can explore to pay for it?' "Right. And you can't really expect to collect from those revenues streams if the music's not any good, it just doesn't happen.

"We spend an awful lot of time showing people that added budget means added quality, and at this point it really does — you can have one guy with a particular skill set in a studio cranking out sample-based scores and they can range from really amazing down to just 'It's not very good'. But you don't have to go far — I've done some scores using mostly samples where I just brought one or two musicians in and the level's different, it's like 200 percent better."

In order to promote game soundtracks and communicate GANG's message to the industry, Jack is putting on a concert at the end of this year's E3 (Electronic Entertainment Expo) at the Hollywood Bowl in LA on May 16th to showcase the best music from game soundtracks. "There's going to be a 90-piece orchestra and a 40-piece choir, and it'll be a star-studded event that will drive awareness through the roof. When that happens, everybody will know game audio is real, and it will be such a fast transition that it will change the business forever. I've been thinking about this for a number of years and now I've got a team put together to do it and we're going to make it happen."

So will he be performing some of the music from Myst III? "Of course!"

For more information about GANG, visit www.audiogang.org.

Published February 2003