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September 6, 2002 - All week long we've been running an Age of Mythology music contest. Each day we'd post a short clip of a song from one of Ensemble's Age games and asked you guys to tell us which one it was from. The contest is getting such a huge response that we were glad to talk to the guys behind the music in the next game in the series, Age of Mythology. We recently chatted with music and sound director Stephen Rippy and music and sound artist Kevin McMullan to find out a bit more about the process of creating and recording the music for the game.
After reading the interview, check out the six new clips of music from the game in our media section.
IGNPC: From a perspective of video games, who are your biggest musical influences? Have you played any recent games that blew you away in terms of music?
Stephen Rippy: I think most of our inspiration comes from records. Folks like Peter Gabriel, Tuatara, Bill Laswell, Talvin Singh, and Tchad Blake had more to do with the sound of Age of Mythology than any particular game I can think of. That being said, we both liked Grim Fandango a lot.
IGNPC: Someone once said of writing film scores, that you've done your job if no one really notices the music. Do you have a particular philosophy that applies to scoring games? Is there a specific purpose you keep in mind?
Stephen Rippy: That's pretty close. I always like to hear that people feel like something's missing if the music is turned off. We definitely try, above all else, to serve what's happening on the screen. There's so much aural information flying around in one of our games even without the music that it's important to leave a little sonic space. Of course, it's also great when people like to play your stuff in the car.
IGNPC: What's the most unique aspect of this particular project? How is it different from others you've worked on?
Stephen Rippy: I think the most unique aspect of this project is its scope. It's not an exaggeration to say that, musically speaking, almost everything we've done for Age of Mythology is something that we haven't done before. The best example of this was writing for a seventy-piece orchestra and then flying out to Washington to record it. Coming from a background of mostly synthesizer-based soundtracks, that was quite a challenge and a real thrill.
Kevin McMullan: I'd have to say working with a live orchestra and creating a dynamic music system (having the game transition between different tracks that reflect the action in the game) have been the most unique aspects of this project. We have done several new things throughout the development of Age of Mythology, but those two have been both the most challenging, and the most fulfilling accomplishments.
IGNPC: How much direction are you given for a game? What's the starting point for your compositions?
Stephen Rippy: At the beginning of the project, we put together a mix CD to give the designers a feel for the kind of material that we wanted to write. We talked about it some, got a green light on the general direction, and were left pretty much alone for a few months. Once we started dropping stuff in, it was up to everyone in the company to make comments and give us feedback.
Kevin McMullan: For me, I generally start my writing process by choosing an instrument I want to feature, and then just messing around with it for a while. I might start with a simple shaker pattern, or a more complex part using a melodic instrument. From there, I just start layering parts, trying to use different instruments than I haven't used before, or at least trying to use familiar instruments differently.
IGNPC: You've said that the soundtrack fades from one section to another depending on context? How does this work exactly? How do you design music in a modular form so there's unity and flexibility?
Stephen Rippy: We went back and forth on this stuff probably more than any other piece of the game that we touched. The system we eventually decided on is able to seamlessly crossfade between two mixes of a given song depending on how the player is doing in the game. Most of the time, the player will hear a nice, full-sounding track, but if he or she gets run over by the enemy or loses a lot of population, the music downshifts to a more ambient, somber mix. Additionally, if a player is involved in attacking a significant building or uses particular god powers, the music will quickly shift to a totally separate playlist of "fighting" tunes. These will play until the event that caused them finishes.
IGNPC: How much inspiration have you taken from traditional music of the cultures represented in the game? How do you cast that in a modern, digestible framework while still remaining faithful to historical musical forms and instrumentation?
Kevin McMullan: In the previous games, this has been a more relevant approach to composing the soundtrack. For Age of Mythology, we have had to adjust our thinking a little bit, because there is just isn't a great amount of reference material out there concerning the musical traditions of these ancient cultures. For this soundtrack we expanded upon the sonic themes that have been presented in the previous games, while including a broad interpretation of the cultures as we feel they are presented in the game.
IGNPC: So what kinds of instruments and arrangements are you using?
Kevin McMullan: My favorite part about working in the Music/Sound department here has been how much we push ourselves to try new instruments and recording techniques. This attitude has really improved the quality of the soundtrack for Age of Mythology. Our instrument pool has grown a great deal during the development of this game, and we try to use the instruments in as many ways as we can. Some of the more unique additions have been an Egyptian Oud, a pair of Wind Wands (a very cool noise maker that uses rubber bands), and a Conch Shell horn. We even found a way to include my long-necked banjo in the soundtrack!
Stephen Rippy: We do try to adopt an anything-goes attitude about instruments and have a lot of fun finding weird things to throw in. In addition to what Kevin mentioned, we used everything from an enormous variety of drums, to a portable World War II-era field organ, to a set of car keys.
IGNPC: And how about samples? Are you using pre-recorded or canned sounds for any particular effects?
Kevin McMullan: Another major focus for us on this project was creating a massive sound library of our own material. We went to two zoos and marine animal parks to record as many sounds as we could. (We also spent a good deal of time running around the office banging on desks, trash bins, and overhead projectors.) Some sample library stuff does show up from time to time, but we did a huge amount of recording.
IGNPC: Tell us a bit about the overall process of composing, orchestrating and performing the music. Who and what is involved at the various stages of the process?
Stephen Rippy: Well, Kevin and I do 100% of the writing and about 95% of the performing. For the most part, we compose separately but often bring each other in to play specific parts or get some honest opinions. We're also lucky enough to have a decent amount of musicians around the office, and it's fun to bring in those guys too.
Probably the most difficult time for us is the mixing stage. It's at that point that all of the volumes of all of the individual instruments in each song get balanced together - it's an extremely detail-oriented and frustrating process, and we put a ton of work into it. Doing the orchestral material for this project was a little out of the ordinary for us; we wrote the music and recorded synthesizer-based demos, but then passed the tracks on to an orchestrator named Stan LePard. Stan's job was to listen to what we had done and literally write it out for the players, who then did a great job performing the pieces.
IGNPC: Sounds great so far. Thanks for your time, guys.
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