M4G: How did you get into writing music for games? Were you a 'sound guy' who crossed over into creating the music or was music always your first love?
Stephen Rippy: I got into this in a roundabout way. When I was in college, Ensemble Studios was just starting to move out of making database add-ons and into making games. My older brother David had been with the company for a few years and I was able to submit some musical ideas through him. As it turned out, we each wrote about half of the first Age of Empires score in spare moments right up until it was released. A year after that, I graduated and have been with ES ever since. I definitely consider myself a music guy who does sound rather than the other way around.
M4G: You wrote the Age of Empires III score with fellow long-time Ensemble Studios musician Kevin McMullan, whose previous collaborations include other titles in the Age of Empires series as well as 2002's Age of Mythology. When did your partnership with Kevin start?
Stephen Rippy: Kevin and I have been in some kind of musical partnership on and off since we formed a garage band as twelve-year-olds. His first work here was on the Conquerors expansion pack for Age of Empires II.
M4G: Can you tell us about how the co-composing process works? Did you divide up the compositional body and then assign/work on titles individually or were they joint partnerships from the start to finish?
Stephen Rippy: Well, in the past we've always just divided the work down the middle and said "go." As it happened this time, Kevin started working on another project pretty early on and it became more a case of, "how much can you do by this date?" Either way, although we rely heavily on each other's feedback, we almost never actually write together.
M4G: How much time did you have for writing and implementation?
Stephen Rippy: Age III was composed in bursts for about two years, and the tracks were implemented into the game along the way.
M4G: Where was the score recorded (which orchestra/choir/number of musicians/studio?) and how many minutes of music were recorded live?
Stephen Rippy: The score was recorded in Seattle by Northwest Sinfonia; we had two sessions at Studio X separated by about a year. At its largest, the orchestra was made up of forty live players, though the strings always took a doubling pass. Percussion was overdubbed separately, as was the choir. The second session was a little different in that I brought in a fair amount of material that I recorded myself at Ensemble just to make things a little more cost-effective.
M4G: What kinds of instrumentation and combinations of music styles did you employ for the different ages/themes?
Stephen Rippy: One of the nice things about the setting of Age III was that it gave us the opportunity to use some interesting soloists in a historical context. So, as time moves forward in the game, it makes sense to hear things played first on bagpipes and field drums, then later on hammer dulcimers and mandolins, and finally as full orchestral arrangements. Stylistically, I think the music is generally pretty Hollywood, though there were a couple of fun tracks where I got to try some hammy Mozart and Aaron Copland impressions.
M4G: How is your music utilized in the game? Can you give us some specific examples?
Stephen Rippy: I often like the music to be something that the player misses when it's not there rather than something that he or she is constantly aware of. That being said, I think the most important function of our soundtrack is to give some forward motion to the first fifteen or twenty minutes of the game. After that, there's usually a fair amount of action and noise, but things tend to start quietly. The music is also used to heighten tension when a big battle starts, and to give some resonance to the cinematic scenes in the campaign.
M4G: How does scoring Age of Empires compare with other franchises such as Age of Mythology?
Stephen Rippy: The biggest difference was the extensive use of the orchestra, which of course trickled down to every part of the process. In past games, many tracks were inspired by a new instrument, a groove, or even a particular sound effect; this time around, those palettes were more pre-defined. It was important to focus less on rhythm and production and more on melody, so to that end I tried to limit my writing tools to a piano patch and a Dictaphone. I didn't fire up the sequencer or orchestral samples until I had something that sounded good, with supporting harmony and some sense of structure, in that simple context.
M4G: The bonus DVD that comes with the soundtrack album includes fourteen tracks remixed in 5.1 surround. What are the challenges of this process in terms of organizing what sounds are emitted from each channel? Is there a standard for orchestral instrumentation or is it a matter of experimenting until you get the mix that most appeals to your professional ears? How much time was dedicated to delivering the mixes in 5.1?
Stephen Rippy: Working in 5.1 was one of the highlights of the project for sure, though we only spent two or three days on it. One tried-and-true approach would have been to put the orchestra in the front speakers and the hall ambience in the rears, but we wanted to see if we could push it a little with the panning and really use the whole space. In the end, I'm pleased with the way those mixes turned out; to me, it adds a lot of life to the music and (hopefully) doesn't sound gimmicky.
M4G: Do the five exclusive bonus tracks from the soundtrack album appear in the game?
Stephen Rippy: Four of them appear as background music during cinematics. The "Sumthing Different" mix is not in the game at all - Nile Rodgers and an artist called Punch put that together. The idea was that it would be fun to put some of the orchestral elements over a heavy beat and see if that could draw in an audience that might not otherwise have listened to the soundtrack.
M4G: What are you working on next? Any plans to write additional music for the new episodes of the game?
Stephen Rippy: Well, nothing's been announced, but it's hard to imagine not having some kind of Age of Empires project on the horizon.
M4G: Anything else you'd like to add?
Stephen Rippy: I'd like offer some big thanks to the team of folks that helped get all this material recorded. Stan LePard in particular contributed a great deal to the project both as an orchestrator and a general provider of advice and good humor.
Thanks for the questions - I hope you like the music!