Beyond 2016 What’s the future of video game soundtracks?

Marty O’Donnell, one of gaming’s greatest audio directors, tells us about working with Paul McCartney and the future of music in gaming.

Video games and music go hand in hand. From when Jose Gonzales’ ‘Far Away’ soundtracks the moment you enter Mexico in Red Dead Redemption, to cruising through Liberty City listening to Kanye’s ‘Flashing Lights’ in GTA IV, the marriage between video games and music is a blissful one.

Over the last few decades, the video game industry has grown to become even bigger than the music and film industries. The attraction of working on video games is so great, that some of the biggest names from both of those aforementioned industries, such as Hans Zimmer and Paul McCartney, are now getting involved.

You can understand why. From how the dusty jazz of Fallout 3 reminds you of a world now lost, to the immense, cinematic sound of the Mass Effect series, to the relentless, throbbing piss-annoying 8-bit Tetris theme, video game soundtracks immerse and involve an audience to a level that other mediums could only dream of. And if there’s one series that has exceeded itself in that department, it’s the Halo series.

There’s a lot to like about Halo. The tight shooting mechanics, the large-scale combat, the gorgeous worlds, the massive story, how it feels to drive a Warthog, the intense satisfaction that comes from ‘sticking’ someone and the killer multiplayer mode.

But if there’s one thing that’s really stood out across the Halo series, dating all the way back to 2001’s Halo: Combat Evolved, it’s the music. It’s bold, it’s huge and it’s distinct. The music in Halo is so beloved by fans of the series that someone even went and made a way for you to listen to the menu theme music from each individual game.

As an award winning audio director on both Destiny and the majority of the Halo series, amongst others, Marty O’Donnell is responsible for making some of the very best music and sound effects in all of gaming. So, with Marty working on a new game with his new studio Highwire Games, DIY decided to have a career-spanning discussion with Marty about his past studio burning down, working with Paul McCartney and the future of music in video games.

What does it take to be audio director at one of the biggest and most successful game studios in the world?

I wanted everything coming out of the speakers to be my responsibility, and I was able to convince Bungie that that should be my role. So, for a good 15 years, I was that person. I would work with the project lead, the creative director, and then I would work with the other directors, like art directors, design, and engineering, just to make sure everything was on track.

On a daily basis, I was making sure the story was coming along, working with the writer, and then I was working with the designers on the levels, so I understood what the levels were doing and what the goal of the game was. Then, I had to figure out how to do the best sound design, music and voice-over work to fulfil the vision of the entire project. That’s a lot of work for one person. So I had to rely on a lot of other people, and I worked with some really good people, such as my partner Mike Salvatori.

Basically, the way I looked at it was, as audio director, the main thing is that if the people like the audio in the game, that’s a team effort, but if people don’t like the audio in the game, I can say, yeah, I’m the audio director, that’s my fault. So to be audio director is to take the blame, but the credit needs to be spread out to the team, because there’s a whole team of people doing it. But the final decision about what’s in the game from an audio standpoint, that’s my decision.

What goes into creating that signature sound of Halo?

You never know when you’re composing what will turn into the iconic sound - that sound that everyone latches on to. Both Mike and I were in bands. We know how to write a good song, how to write a good hook. We know the importance of a hook - something melodic, or catchy phrase that sticks in people’s minds. The monk chant from Halo was that. I thought it was important to have monks singing in order to give that sense of an ancient civilisation, but I also knew that would be a thematic element that could last a long time, although I certainly never anticipated it lasting as long as it has. It’s still the opening of Halo 5 (released 2015), which is pretty cool. I wrote that monk chant in 1999! So we’re talking 16 years ago, which is pretty amazing.

It’s great to see that they’re still using it. Some of the other melodies from older Halo games have snuck their way back in as well, which is great. I think, sometimes, it just has to do with comfort zones. People know that they’ve returned to Star Wars when they hear the Star Wars theme. To be able to do that for a franchise like Halo was a real privilege, so it’s great to see it still hanging around.

But while you’re doing it, at first… I just needed to make something that would grab people’s attention for a trailer that was announcing Halo 3. I wanted to do something at E3 that was different onstage to what every other trailer was going to do. That’s why I did that piano theme, which sort of became a signature for the Halo 3 game. So then, as I continued to write music for the rest of the game, I would come back to that piano melody. I thought it was something people would remember.

Being responsible for as much as you were, how do you respond when things go wrong?

Well, certainly having your studio burn down is as bad as it gets. That was in 1999, we had already started working with Bungie and we had hours and hours of voice work recorded. And then the studio burned down. It completely burned. January 1999. It was amazingly cold in Chicago. We saw the building burning and the fire hoses shooting water through the windows. It was just disastrous. After the fire was out, the water froze. I climbed back in through the third story window, and it was just devastated. In the corner of the studio were a bunch of Jazz cartridges stacked up, and that’s where all of our back up for the voiceover sessions were sitting, and they were frozen in a block of ice, so those were saved. We didn’t actually lose any content in the fire for that game!

We lost a lot of other stuff, but at least I was able to chop that block of ice out and save the jazz cartridges. A bunch of the recording studios in Chicago stepped up to the plate for us, and allowed us to finish recording the rest of the game at another studio. I thought we had lost everything, very lucky. Probably 30 hours of recording time of all these different actors, all this work, it would have been devastating. I don’t know what we would have done. But it was great to find those things. That’s the worst possible case. Keep off-site back ups! Don’t keep everything on your hard drive. It’s a lot easier now to back up, of course.

"Having your studio burn down is as bad as it gets."

What was it like working with the actual Paul McCartney on Destiny?

That was the absolute high point of my career. We had a guy, Lev Chapelsky, who would always be getting us connected with good actors, like Ron Perlman or Nathan Fillion. Lev called me and said you should try working with Paul McCartney, and I said sure. He didn’t have a connection with Paul so I didn’t think it would ever happen. But he figured a way to get in touch with Paul’s people and he said ‘Hey, if Paul is interested in working in games, he should work on this game called Destiny with Marty O’Donnell.’ I think they looked at the offer and thought it was an interesting way to go.

So we had a meeting in Los Angeles and Paul came in. He was excited about meeting with us. We spent a little over two hours talking about writing music for games and what’s unique about it, and then we spoke about kids and grand kids, which was great.

I had several sessions with Paul. I met him at Capitol Records when he was recording there, and we had the room to ourselves. I had a piano there, so I could show him the stuff we were doing and he showed me the stuff he thought would be interesting.

We started combining melodies. I worked with him at Abbey Road. Then we worked with him and his band at New York City at Avatar studios, which used to be the old power station, it’s a famous old rock and roll recording studio in New York. We had all that. Giles Martin was there, one of Paul’s producers, an engineer, and the son of George Martin. So we worked with him.

We had Paul and the orchestra at Abbey Road studios in November of 2012. And that’s when we had the whole orchestra together and did the entire work, most of which in Destiny. It was originally going to be in this product called Music of the Spheres, which was going to be the musical prequel to Destiny. It would be the soundtrack to Destiny, but it would come out before Destiny, to get people excited.

Through various circumstances, it did not come out, but most of it is in the game. One of these days, I’m still hoping that music of the spheres will come out as a standalone work. It’s 50 minutes long, it’s 8 movements, and it’s all of one whole. It’s a thing that should be heard together. I think. I know Paul wants it to come out; I want it to come out. We’ll see what happens.

Do you keep in contact with Paul McCartney?

The relationship with Paul was really great. Especially that two-year period where we worked together. I haven’t spoken to him in a little while. I talked to his manager about a month ago. Paul actually gave me a call in the past year, he knew I was going through some difficulty with Bungie [Marty was fired from Bungie in April 2014. He recently won a substantial settlement from his former employer after claiming he had been fired “without cause”] so we had a really good talk about that. He told me not to worry about the situation, that everyone goes through tough times. He was being really sweet. I just thought, he’s about as nice a guy as you could ever meet. For someone who absolutely does not have to be a nice guy, he’s really an amazing nice guy.

I grew up with The Beatles as these icons. I put them on a pedestal. At Bungie, we would joke about getting a call from Steven Spielberg, to do a movie or something. That was always a joke. But we would never have thought about joking with Paul McCartney, he was so above everything. So to actually get the chance to work with him… it was really great.

Marty O’Donnell, working with Paul McCartney in 2013.

What do you think about huge figures, like Paul McCartney, moving in to work on video games?

A few years ago, I had finished all the music for Halo 3 ODST, which was a departure musically for us, took it in more of a film noir jazz orientated direction. At the same time we found out that Hans Zimmer was doing the new Call Of Duty so we were like, ‘Wow, we’ve arrived.’ Everyone from the big leagues is willing to work on game music. The cool part for me was that we were nominated for Best Video Game Score, as was Hans Zimmer, but we won! I felt pretty good about that.

So I’m thrilled [about big names getting involved with video games]. This finally shows that the games business has come of age. Whether it be writers or composers or actors - it’s just entertainment. People are doing Broadway plays; they’re performing in London. They’re singing in operas and singing in orchestras and they’re writing books and they’re working in video games. There are a lot of people out there that enjoy working in different mediums. So, I feel like video games have come of age. It’s not just a younger brother of the movie business anymore.

Where do you see music in games going from here?

Well, music in games has matured to the point where any aesthetic approach to scoring and composition in games is valid. You can go in any direction now and there’s nothing that’s preventing you from using full orchestral choir scores to the smallest little group or minimal, really interesting trios of woodwinds. Basically, there’s nothing that you can’t do in video game music.

There used to be technical constraints, but all of those are now gone. So it’s whatever your imagination is capable of doing. I think it opens up all the possibilities, the same way it has opened up in the movie and television business.

With game music, you’re always trying to think how to adapt the music to what the player is doing. The player is driving what the music is doing. There are still lots of frontiers in that direction. We’re still working out what the best way to create music that follows what the player is doing and adapts and is totally integrated into their experience - without the player being aware of it. That’s an important thing. So I think there is still room to grow there, regardless of what style of music you’re doing. I think implementing music in a way that’s really effective for gameplay, that’s still a frontier, there’s still some work to be done.

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