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2.2.2009
Behind the Music of Halo Wars: Interview with Composer Stephen Rippy
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Click here to order Halo Wars Original Soundtrack 

Based on the legendary Halo universe, Halo Wars is a real-time strategy game for the Xbox 360 developed by Ensemble Studios. In campaign mode, command the armies of the UNSC warship Spirit of Fire, with familiar and new UNSC units in its initial encounters against the Covenant, an alien coalition threatening to obliterate mankind. Halo Wars immerses players in an early period of the storied Halo universe, allowing you to experience events leading up to the first Halo title for Xbox.

The Halo Wars original score was composed by Stephen Rippy with performances by the FILMharmonic Orchestra and Choir Prague. Stephen Rippy is a Dallas, TX area composer with over ten years experience writing and recording original soundtracks for games. From 1997-2009, he provided music and sound design for Microsoft/Ensemble Studios' popular Age of Empires series, as well as the spin-off title Age of Mythology. The Age games have won numerous critical awards and have sold a combined total of over twenty million units. Following up on our Halo Wars recording session report, M4G recently caught up with Stephen Rippy to discuss the scoring process for his latest epic, Halo Wars.

M4G: First of all please tell us about your musical background and how you got started working in the video game industry?
Stephen Rippy:  When I was about twelve years old, I started to take piano lessons and formed a band with some friends.  We were interested in writing and recording right away, and taught ourselves to do those things over the years – which in turn led to me doing my own stuff on a 4-track cassette machine.  Eventually I was proficient enough with this to submit a demo tape to my older brother’s boss, who had it in his head to start a game company.  The company turned into Ensemble Studios, and I remained there until we closed up shop last week.


Click here to order Halo Wars Original Soundtrack 

M4G: How did your previous work on the soundtrack for Age of Empires series and Age of Mythology prepare you for writing this epic score?
Stephen Rippy:  Wow, I’m not sure what about those experiences didn’t help prepare me for this.  Just about everything I know about the job, I learned from those games – from writing and arranging, to recording, down to making a schedule and sticking to it.

M4G: When did you start writing music for Halo Wars and how long did the process take?
Stephen Rippy:  I started writing in April of 2007 and continued through the following February.  By the time the mixing was finished a couple of months later, I’d spent just about a year on the music.


Score sheet of Stephen Rippy's "Spirit of Fire" theme music from Halo Wars.

M4G: How does the score for Halo Wars compare to the previous Halo game scores? How did you decide to what degree you would feature the iconic Halo theme and signature monk chanting. How did you treat the difference characters and races with contrasting music styles? Did you employ any new themes?
Stephen Rippy:  I think the music of Halo Wars is comparable to that of the earlier games  in attitude and feel.  There’s a lot of similar instrumentation and, as you point out, I did carry over a couple of themes.  It’s not something I wanted to over-do, though; it was important to the whole team that this game should have its own identity. 

M4G: How did you treat the difference characters and races with contrasting music styles? Did you employ any new themes?
Stephen Rippy:  In the game’s skirmish mode, it’s the worlds rather than the races that get different treatments:  you have the “spooky ambient world,” the “world that sounds like Halo,” and so on.   In the campaign mode, several of the major characters get recurring melodies or sounds that mix it up with each other.  Of the handful of new themes, probably “Spirit of Fire” will be the one that is most identified with the game.


Click here to order Halo Wars Original Soundtrack 

M4G: Bungie’s Audio Director/Composer Marty O’Donnell talked about provoking a range of emotions with his music for Halo 3. What kind of feelings are you aiming to infuse the player with in your music for Halo Wars? How do you think the music enhances the flow of the game?
Stephen Rippy:  I’d love it if the music helps to give players a sense of discovery.  The characters in the story are seeing things that no one’s ever seen before and, despite whatever danger they’re in, there’ s often some amazing stuff going on.  To me, the main way the music enhances a strategy game is by getting the player through the early build-up stages.  If there’s a sense of momentum at the beginning and some punctuation added to the battles, I think the score has done its job.

M4G: Were there are any restrictions on the music brief for Halo Wars? How much creative freedom were you given? How much music direction were you provided by Bungie? Did you get to add your own identity to the Halo Wars music?
Stephen Rippy:  Within Ensemble, once I had done a couple of the more overtly Halo-esque tracks, I was given quite a bit of creative freedom.  And, in general, Bungie was more interested in seeing what we’d come up with than in telling us what to do.  I never felt restricted, and I certainly think Halo Wars has got a lot of me in it.


Click here to order Halo Wars Original Soundtrack 

M4G: What were some of the challenges composing the music for Halo Wars?
Stephen Rippy:  Probably the biggest challenge was meeting those initial expectations of how the music should sound.  Of course, it’s fans of the series that will have the strongest feelings about it – and they haven’t heard most of it yet!  So we’ll see how I’ve done :)

M4G: Are there advantage to being an in-house composer?
Stephen Rippy:  Definitely, the biggest being time and resources.  Reporting to people who know you enough to trust your judgment is incredibly valuable as well.


Click here to order Halo Wars Original Soundtrack

M4G: Can you tell us about your experience with the Wwise audio pipeline solution and how this benefitted your job as audio director?  Has new technology improved the implementation process in any discerning ways?
Stephen Rippy:  Although I didn’t really touch anything in Wwise outside of the interactive music tools, I was really impressed with what was there.  It was much easier to set up the music system in Halo Wars than in our past games, and I was able to tweak it quite a bit more.  I’d like to go through another project with it, knowing what I do now – there’s definitely a lot of cool stuff there.

M4G: Let’s talk about the orchestral recording session. Why did you employ the FILMharmonic Orchestra and Choir Prague instead of the Northwest Sinfonia in Seattle which previously recorded the other Halo scores?
Stephen Rippy:  I attended the sessions for Age of Empires III:  The Asian Dynasties in Prague near the beginning of my time writing for Halo Wars, and just loved both the city and the sound that the FILMharmonic Orchestra was getting.  There’s also a cost advantage to recording in Eastern Europe, which has to figure into the decision as well.  All in all, it was a great change of pace!


FILMharmonic Orchestra recording music for Halo Wars at CNSO Studio No. 1

M4G: We understand Marty O’Donnell attended the mixing session. Did that put additional pressure on you or did he provide reassurance?
Stephen Rippy:  Marty came by during a mixing session once we’d sort of moved operations over to Seattle.  We pulled up a few of the finished surround tracks, put him in the sweet spot between the speakers, and crossed our fingers...  I’m happy to say that he seemed pleased with what he heard and was nothing but reassuring.

M4G: What do you think is the most unique aspect of the score for Halo Wars?
Stephen Rippy:  Well, I’m not sure.  Maybe just hearing something that’s so familiar filtered through a different personality?  I know I’m really happy with the way the orchestral and choral performances blended with the electronic elements.  Hopefully there are some ideas in there that people haven’t heard a lot of before.


Click here to order Halo Wars Original Soundtrack 

M4G: What are your favorite tracks from the Halo Wars soundtrack and why?
Stephen Rippy:  The main theme, “Spirit of Fire,” is a standout.  I think it’s got a little of everything in it, and to me it really feels like a part of Halo.  There are other ones that I like because they represented some little breakthrough for me – “Flollo” is an example of that with some of the sounds that are going on.  Hmm…tough to say :)

M4G: Now that Ensemble Studios has closed what are you plans? Will you seek an in-house position as an Audio Director and/or Composer or will you strike at as a freelance composer?
Stephen Rippy:  It’s actually a little too early for me to know how things are going to pan out; I guess I could see it either way.  Ensemble was definitely a unique experience and will be a tough act to follow, but something will follow!


Click here to order Halo Wars Original Soundtrack 

The Halo Wars Original Soundtrack is released Feb. 17, 2009 to retail outlets through Nile Rodgers’ Sumthing Else Music Works record label, and for digital download at www.sumthingdigital.com.

For more information on Halo Wars visit www.halowars.com.

 
 
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