Nothing is more inspiring than sitting in a room as a live orchestra, brimming with talented musicians, puts their all into creating a cohesive magical melody. Watching the conductor’s arms dance through the air while the composers take the lead in the control room, listening and giving notes to ensure the final product is nothing short of perfection, is an experience worth living through if you’re given the chance. This is the scene I witnessed a couple of weeks ago when I visited the Newman Scoring Stage at 20th Century Fox Studios in Los Angeles for the scoring of Halo Wars 2‘s soundtrack.
After the invitation was extended, I trekked out to L.A. and got the lowdown on the recording process. Speaking with composer Gordy Haab, audio director and Formosa Interactive’s Paul Lipson and Finishing Move composers Brian Trifon and Brian Lee White, I learned how the group collaborates to bring the world of Halo to life. On top of that, we have two exclusive songs to premiere, plus a behind-the-scenes look at the scoring process, which you can check out at the top of the page.
The foundation for the soundtrack is strong, as the team behind it has experience in spades. Haab is an award-winning movie, video game, and television composer, who most recently worked on Star Wars: Battlefront. As for the Finishing Move team of Brian Trifon and Brian Lee White, you’ll recognize some of their recent work from The Master Chief Collection, Halo Channel, and Double Fine’s Massive Chalice. Speaking with audio director Paul Lipson (who also worked on Halo before) added an extra layer of depth to our understanding of how everything gets made.
The first song we have for you is called “Run Little Demons,” composed by Gordy Haab and Finishing Move. This scape was created to capture the brute strength and complex nature of Atriox (which is a new badass villain in the game) and the Banished.
“In this specific cue, we use powerful tribal drums and high tech electronic percussion to create an intense rhythmic foundation. Heavy brass and layered synths augment the rhythm with explosive stabs, expressing dread and fear, while strings add tension and color to create contrast,” the composers said. Creating a sound that instantly evokes the right emotions is key, and this is even more important when introducing a new character like Atriox to the universe.
When asked exactly what kind of emotions they wanted Atriox to evoke, Paul Lipson instantly responded, “Other than sheer terror?”
The second track we have for you is “Isabel’s Awakening.” This is the new theme for the “smart” AI introduced into the world, which is supposed to reflect the hardships she’s witnessed, including having all of her friends destroyed during a Banished surprise attack, and the turmoil going on in the universe. “‘Isabel’s Awakening’ is comprised of three sections: First, an introduction and delicate statement of her main melodic theme,” the team said. “Next, a lament to honor fallen heroes and to underscore the present strife and unrest. Then finally, a reprise of her main theme that blossoms and grows into a bold and hopeful hero’s song.” A complex sound for a complex character.
With Haab, White, Trifon, and Lipson at the helm, the soundtrack has the potential to become something memorable in the Halo universe. Because the team is working on a spin-off of the main series, they had more freedom with its direction. To put it simply, they are not as beholden to the established sound we’re all familiar with, even though they strive to stay true to the franchise… which of course, is a good thing. “It was less restrictive than being part of the main canon, because we get to prop up not only a legacy from the first game, but also new characters, new locations, and some familiar locations,” said Lipson.
So why put this team of composers together? “You’re not going to find one person that’s fantastic at everything,” White said. So while White and Trifon have their own sound and familiarity with the Halo music (as they’ve worked on the series before), they needed an “Orchestra boss”: Gordy Haab. White also emphasized the importance of their teamwork, saying, “It was always a collaborative situation.”
With all the pieces set, the team wanted to make something new and refreshing, leaving their own mark on the series with an interesting, unique sound. With that in mind, there needed to be some sort of connection to the series. “We wanted to definitely incorporate choir, and then sort of branch from that,” Haab said. “We each had our hands on every piece of music in the entire game.”
A lot of thought also went into how the music will be going into the game, especially since the goal is to have the dialogue, gameplay, and music dynamically interact with each other. Lipson created a color system that ranges from green, yellow, red, and super red, so that depending on what’s going on in the game and the stress level that coordinates with a color, it’ll “ratchet up” the music. So basically, the music will correlate with what the player is experiencing, an important feature for an RTS game.
As for whether there are extra pressures working on an iconic series like Halo, the answer is obvious.”Yes, there’s a ton of pressure working on an existing franchise this large,” Haab said. He’s worked on both Star Wars: Battlefront, and Knights of the Old Republic, so he’s definitely got a lot of experience in that department. He added, “I’m really used to the pressure of an existing franchise, and a large fanbase with expectations.”
“Because this is Halo Wars, and it is an offshoot story, it doesn’t have to fully rely on the exact traditional Marty O’Donnell [composer known for work at Bungie] elements of music. So we can take it in different directions,” stated Trifon. This team knows what a Halo game sounds like, so they were very careful in staying true to the franchise while still taking the liberty to experiment with things like featuring the brass which Haab really wanted to introduce to the soundtrack. It doesn’t end there, though. Haab also mentioned how he really liked the filter effects Trifon and White worked on, so he took the brass section to imitate that using acoustic instruments.
To get an even better understanding of the mindset with the some of the sounds used in the soundtrack, Trifon elaborated on a “space violin”-like sound that he’s used before in the Halo games, explaining that it actually comes from a squeaky oven door. “It sounds organic, but alien. From the non-orchestral point of view, what we’re trying to bring with the textures is, instead of it just being some Daft Punk-like synths, it’s textures that have some sort of organic humanity to it, but still sounding alien and strange.” He continued to express his appreciation of how the franchise has a history for every civilization in the game, so making the sounds organic is an important factor when bringing everything to life.
When discussing the legacy of the Halo music over the years with Dan Ayoub (Studio Head of Strategy Games, 343 Industries) and Frank O’Connor (Franchise Creative Director, 343 Industries), O’Conner said, “We’ve worked with such amazing composers over the years, from Marty O’Donnell to Neil Davidge to Kazuma Jinnouchi, and everyone we’ve worked with has poured soul and talent into creating a soundscape that is familiar, moving, exciting and elating.”
He continued,” It speaks to a universe and an experience that is hard to put into mere words, and that, ironically is something music can describe just as well as rhetoric. Working with a team of composers, who have created absolutely beloved music for many games, have a slightly more six dimensional problem to solve. They have to tie a new score into the epic legacy of two fantastic composers, all the while sticking to a shared and distributed voice and vision.”
Ayoub added, “But Gordy Haab has created a couple of soundtracks for Star Wars games and Brian Trifon has created scores for Assassin’s Creed and previous Halo games, so they’re already familiar with the nuances of creating music for established franchises.”
One thing is clear: this soundtrack for the game is incredibly important to the team. White sums it up perfectly when discussing everything finally coming together at the studio: “This is going to be so dope.” Music, especially in video games, is too often forgotten, but it’s such an integral part of shaping an experience.
Halo Wars 2 may not be a sequel in the main series, but the sound is getting the love and attention required to make it memorable. And if the game is handled with such high regard on every other spectrum, we’re in for a treat come early next year.
Make sure to check out the clip above from my time at the Newman Scoring Stage at 20th Century Fox Studios, just to get a glimpse of how the magic happens. I’d like to once again thank Microsoft, 343, and the talented composers for giving me a behind-the-scenes look.
Are you looking forward to getting your hands on Halo Wars 2 early next year? What do you think about the two exclusive songs revealed here? What are you favorite video game soundtracks? Where do the Halo series’ soundtracks rank on that list? Let us know in the comments below!
Images: Microsoft, 343i, Formosa Group/Martin Cohen.