Just the Right Sense of "Ancient"

Just the Right Sense of "Ancient"

Editor's Note: The Halo soundtrack is now available at the Bungie store!

Gamers, when we see the screenshots and articles about an upcoming new game, talk (and talk and talk) about it: gameplay, graphics, control layout, storylines, and the general fun factor. There's a key element that's often forgotten—the soundtrack. Many times I've found myself playing to the tempo of the music throbbing in the background, frantically trying to finish (or start) something before the music ends or changes. My heart pounds as the tension builds and the tempo kicks into high gear. Or maybe I'll feel the chill of apprehension as I uncover some new dark and foreboding plot twist, as the music turns somber and grim. Sometimes this single thing, beyond any other, dramatically influences the atmosphere of a game, and can make the difference between a light-hearted romp in arcade land and a heart-pounding adrenaline rush of blissful entertainment.

So, when we were exploring the first versions of Halo, gawking in amazement at the smooth graphics, mind-blowing performance, killer artwork and particle effects, I wondered what sort of soundtrack would accompany such of game. What could possibly hold up to the sense of tension and excitement that comes from simply walking around in the world of Halo, much less highlight the frantic, chaos of combat? My questions were satisfied when I finally had a chance to dive into the final version and immerse myself deep into the sounds while I stomped around the game. When I found out I'd get a chance to speak with Marty O'Donnell, the man behind that soundtrack, I jumped on it with both feet.

Xbox.com: A little bit of your background: What is your position at Bungie?

Marty O'Donnell: I'm audio director for Bungie Studios at Microsoft, which means I oversee everything that has to do with sound and music on all Bungie products. Luckily, I don't actually have to do it all (that would be horrible) and I've got really talented people that work with me. Jay Weinland is my right-hand man.

Xbox.com: How did you come to be on the audio side of game development? Did you specifically shoot for that position?

MO: I received a Masters of Music Composition degree from USC and then had my own company that specialized in original music and sound design for film, TV, and radio. I got involved with game audio on Riven: The Sequel to Myst, and Myth: The Fallen Lords. After working on several Bungie projects I [came] on full time with Bungie in May of 2000, about 10 days before Microsoft bought us out. Anyway, since my career has always been about music and sound, it makes sense that I'm in this position.

Xbox.com: As far as Halo itself is concerned, let me throw in a quick comment: WOW. It's a great piece of work. Can you tell us a little bit about what your thoughts on the soundtrack were, back in the beginning? How does one go about approaching a project of this sort?

MO: Last question first: with fear and trepidation. Fortunately, we had done some incredibly cool promotional work on Halo with a scripted gameplay demonstration at MacWorld without any sound engine in place. This meant that I had an opportunity to record a musical score that would be played back off a CD for the live show. That's when I wrote the basic Monk/Orchestra piece that ended up being the signature theme for Halo. The feeling that piece of music created seemed to work well with the Halo demo and I decided to base a lot of the other music in the final game on some of the themes from that original track.

Xbox.com: How much flexibility did you have? Was the style specified from the beginning?

MO: Joseph Staten, Bungie's Director of Cinematics, came to me with the MacWorld demo plan and simply said that the music should give a feeling of importance, weight, and sense of the "ancient" to the visuals of Halo. We didn't have much time to fool around with different styles and this was the first thing that came into my head. When it came time to actually score the game itself, I worked closely with the level designers to understand where the different points of tension and release would come into play within each level. The folks at Bungie give me a lot of latitude when it comes to writing music, but every once in a while someone will tell me [something] doesn't fit, or perhaps say "that sucks" in which case I'll usually make some changes.

Xbox.com: Did you have any particular inspirations or styles that you were leaning towards?

MO: Not really, just the kind of music that I like. A little Samuel Barber meets Giorgio Moroder.

Xbox.com: Ok, nuts and bolts time. How do you actually create a soundtrack like this? Was it composed and synthesized all on a computer, or was it recorded? What's the sequence of your tasks?

MO: I worked in studios that contain many keyboards, synths, and samplers as well as digital recording equipment controlled by computers. I start there, and then when needed, add live instrumental performances to those recordings. When I mix the music, I sometimes eliminate the synth/sampler track and only use the live performance. Very little of the music plays back in the game the way it was originally recorded, however. I cut and edited the music into chunks that the game audio engine could play back dynamically based on the player's actions.

Xbox.com: How long did it take you to create it?

MO: The original three-minute track was written and recorded over a three-day period. The rest of the music was created over the course of 2001, starting in the spring. Of course we were recording and producing all the sound design and dialog at the same time so it's hard to figure out how much time was spent on what. One thing I know, the months of July, August, and September were one long hellish blur!

Xbox.com: What do you think of the final outcome?

MO: It's somewhat hard to judge one's own work, especially this close to the finish, but all in all I feel good about the whole thing. Halo is a fun game to play and although not all of my personal goals were reached in terms of music production, the way the music works in the game is pretty satisfying.

Xbox.com: Is there anything you'd like to add?

MO: Well there's one story about the music that not a lot of people know. When we were first recording the original track I hired some Chicago jingle singer friends to be the monks and I chose one singer in particular to improvise some Qawwali chant over the chugging cellos. After the five of us recorded the Gregorian monk type chant, I asked this guy to try some Qawwali stuff. He didn't have any ideas so he asked me to show him what I wanted. I sang something as an example to inspire him, and instead he just said "Hey, that sounded fine. Just record that." So we did, and it's me on the final recording.

By Carlson

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