Over and Out

Published Friday, December 12, 2008 1:27 PM by SOLUS

The Music of Halo Wars, From Start to Finish

By Stephen Rippy

There comes a point in every project when you start to forget where you live.   The late hours pile up, the weeks fly by, and the line between “work” and “home” becomes blurred to the point that it’s easy to find yourself standing in the hall of the office, bewildered as to why your house key won’t unlock the door.  For Halo Wars and me, that point came sometime in the middle of January, 2008.  I was knee-deep in scoring the cutscenes that were being delivered to my inbox on a daily basis, and there was an orchestra booked in Prague for March 10 – a rock-solid deadline onto which I was determined not to crash.

The previous nine months had been productive ones, despite my having spent a good amount of time playing catch-up.  I was a relative latecomer to the team, making my first contributions only after much of the core group had been working together for a couple of years.  However, a cancelled game or two - combined with the need to ramp up production on Halo Wars - meant that there was suddenly a good opportunity available.

The earliest days of my involvement mainly consisted of listening to the previous Halo soundtracks as well as gathering up potentially useful material from a bunch of discarded Ensemble prototypes.  I’m a big fan of both cataloging that stuff and stealing from it without remorse; sometimes you don’t know what you’ve got until you really, really need it. 

In any case, the first two completed tracks reflected that process.  “Flollo” continued some sounds and ideas I’d been noodling with in the months after completing Age of Empires III and its WarChiefs expansion; “Bad Here Day” went a step further and lifted its main chord progression wholesale from a different piece of music recorded during that same period.  Perhaps more interestingly, the latter track was also my first attempt at trying to incorporate the “Halo Sound” into some of my own work.

This was something to which I had given a fair amount of thought.  After all, Marty O’Donnell’s original scores were not only effective at setting the mood of the Halo series; they had also become well-loved pieces of music in their own right.  So, as we are inclined to do, Halo Wars Audio Lead Kevin McMullan and I talked a lot about those tracks.  We spent some time identifying elements that I could reproduce for our game and eventually came up with a pretty good list; however, as useful an exercise as that was, it took getting halfway through a piece of my own to really understand what I was going for.
As is often the case.

Once the ball got rolling, I was able to turn out demo versions of the tunes at a good pace.  Over the spring and into the fall, I watched with satisfaction as my to-do spreadsheet filled up with completed tracks:  “Money or Meteors,” “Flip and Sizzle,” “Best Guess at Best,” and on down the list.  Following an old Ensemble tradition, the titles were red herrings culled from accidentally coined phrases, misheard snatches of conversation, or good old-fashioned in-jokes.  In any case, it seems to me that “Just Ad Nauseam” is more effective than, say, “Battle Track 1,” nominally speaking.

In the midst of all that writing, I began to hear requests for a main theme – a piece of music that I’d been avoiding in a passive-aggressive way since I joined the team.  More than anything else I’d work on, this track needed to both tie itself to the existing series and establish a new identity for our project.  It was a tricky job that I approached in a fairly conservative way, at first simply placing Halo’s famous opening music in a different arrangement and adding a new “B” section to round it off.   It worked well enough, and it certainly made the game feel like part of the series; I was confident that I had found a good solution.

Well, I was wrong.  

Just about everyone that heard the track offered the same comment:  I’d actually made the thing sound too familiar.  Fortunately, it was an easy fix.  After filling out the “B” section a little more, I moved that whole chunk of music to the front of the piece.  The Halo theme was left intact, but its purpose was now to reinforce the new tune rather than set it up.  These changes seemed to do the trick; the feedback turned completely around, we had a main theme, and Halo Wars felt just a little bit more like our game.

By the end of December, I had filled in each of the remaining blank spaces on my spreadsheet.  All of the in-game music was accounted for - from the ambient world tracks, to the battle cues, to the end credits tune.  I enjoyed this success for about a weekend, and then got right into my last big writing push:  the cinematics.

In Halo Wars and most other games, the term “cinematics” (or, if you prefer, “cutscenes”) refers to a series of short, non-interactive movies whose purpose is to break up the action and tell a story.  On one hand, this music almost writes itself; the pace is built into the dialog, the themes carry over from scene to scene and, if nothing else, there’s almost always a strong visual to use as a starting point.  On the other hand, there are many people and opinions involved in the creation of the videos, as well as an awful lot of storyboarding, modeling, and animating to be done.  It’s an unavoidably time-consuming process, and scheduling challenges are just par for the course.

Guessing from past experience that this would probably be the case, I’d planned my year accordingly.  Still, come January it was unnerving to find myself looking at all those empty minutes of video to score and only a few short weeks before the first orchestral recording date.  There was nothing to do but start at the beginning and hope for the best.

“Five Long Years,” the opening cinematic of Halo Wars, introduces the player to several of the story’s key locations and most of its main characters.  From a musical point of view, working on this one first allowed me to figure out several of the themes that I intended to carry through the rest of the score - and also to answer some of my own questions about what these tracks would sound like.  I decided to write mostly for orchestra, pushing the electronics and guitars that were prominent in the in-game tracks more to the background.  In a general sense, this reversed the roles of the instruments and, I hoped, added a little distinction and emotional weight to the cutscene music.

Moving forward more or less in the order of the scenes, I settled into writing roughly one piece a day.  Despite this occasionally stressful pace, the weeks leading up to the Prague session became my favorite period of time on the project.  I was able to work closely with Lead Writer Graeme Devine, and very much enjoyed getting his insight regarding the characters and events of the story.  It was also a lot of fun to watch the visuals progress; Blur, the company responsible for that side of the work, was doing an amazing job, and I was happy to be associated with it. 

Prague Castle

Two months and fifteen cues flew by, and it wasn’t long before I found myself on a plane headed for Europe.  After a rather painful day of travel, I stepped bleary-eyed but excited into the winding medieval streets of Prague.  This was my second visit in a little under a year, having previously made the trip to attend the recording sessions for Age of Empires III:  The Asian Dynasties Expansion.  Perhaps overestimating my familiarity with the place, I took an unintentionally long wander through the Old City before finally meeting up for dinner with my friend - and Halo Wars orchestrator - Stan LePard.
Stan and I first worked together on a handful of tunes for Age of Mythology back in 2002, and have collaborated on several projects since then.  As an orchestrator, Stan’s job is to review the demo versions of the tunes, ensuring that all the parts can be reasonably played by actual people and making revisions and suggestions where he sees fit.  Stan is also responsible for providing written music for every player on a given session, and is often accompanied by boxes overflowing with notated paper.  It’s always a pleasure to see Stan, and I was especially grateful to have his experience and sense of humor along for what would surely be a hectic week.

The first recordings were made on March 10, a couple of days after we had arrived.  Early that morning, we had been picked up and driven about half an hour out of the city to CNSO Studio 1; by the time we arrived, some of the three dozen or so musicians who were scheduled to play were already milling about the studio, tuning up and chatting idly.  In the control room, things were ready to go.  Many months’ worth of synthesizer, guitar, and percussion tracks that I had recorded in Dallas were now collected and arranged in ProTools files, finally just days away from completion.  The red light went on and the conductor raised his baton…

I’ll admit to being a little terrified at what came out of the speakers. 

Totally lacking the time to make sense of my pile of pre-recorded instruments, the engineers had simply turned up random tracks to give us something to reference behind the mixing board.  The result was a chaotic blend of echoes, drums, and, somewhat faintly, live orchestra that shook my confidence for the rest of the week.  I was sure that we were getting good performances, but the overly-cluttered nature of the control room mix made me doubt my whole approach to the score - which was bad considering how far along things were.

FILMHarmonic Orchestra during the Halo Wars sessions

Despite my concerns, recording went very well.  The FILMHarmonic Orchestra played beautifully and was able to get through quite a bit of music in only a few days.  The choir session at the end of the week was similarly successful.  But of all of the hours spent at CNSO, the highlight for me was listening to an orchestra-only run-through of the main theme, “Spirit of Fire,” on the studio floor.  Away from the technical distractions and the responsibility of judging a take, I was able to sit back and enjoy the experience; those are the moments that make it okay for the keys to get mixed up every now and then.

I left the Czech Republic with a hard drive full of music (curiously labeled “Hello Wars”) and the knowledge that I was in the home stretch.  There were a few days to rest at home before it was time to head off to Washington, where Stan and I would meet up again to finish the tracks. 

The first part of the trip was spent mostly at Microsoft’s Soundlab studio in Redmond, editing what we’d recorded in Prague.  This involved combing through hours of material, picking out the best parts of each take, and cleaning up any stray noise or loose timing that we found along the way.  It was a tedious process, and at the end of the week we’d scheduled for it, there was still a substantial amount of work remaining.  On the plus side, my earlier fears about the music being too cluttered were allayed when we made a quick test mix of a fully edited track.  Hearing everything tightened up and put into proper context again changed my perception of what we’d created and renewed my enthusiasm.  It was going to work!

Mixing

Around the end of March, we settled into Studio X in downtown Seattle for final mixing.  The control room was set up to handle the eighty-or-so surround and stereo versions we needed to make, while a second ProTools rig was put together in a separate room to cover any editing that we hadn’t finished at SoundLab.  The days were long, starting early and ending late - but at least they offered a real sense of productivity as the finished tracks slowly began to outnumber the unfinished ones.  Marty O’Donnell was nice enough to stop by the studio at one point, curious to hear how things were progressing.  He seemed enthusiastic about what we played, smiling at one of the tracks that quoted his Halo melody:  “I’ve heard that before!” 

In many ways, the end of the sessions at Studio X represented the end of the road for the Halo Wars score.  All the creative work was finished at that point, and the rest of my time on the project has been spent either getting the tracks into the game or preparing them for CD release.  All in all, the past eighteen months have been among the most eventful of my career - but now, as it all winds down, I’m happy with how both the game and the soundtrack have turned out.  I hope you will be as well, and I hope I’ve added something to the Halo musical legacy.

Of course, this is also the end of the road for Ensemble Studios.  I can’t overstate how important the last dozen or so years have been to me, and I’d like to thank everyone from the company, past and present, for the opportunity.  I’m not sure what the future will bring, but I hope it’ll be more music.  In the meantime, for all of you who have taken an interest in any of this:  thanks for listening!

-Stephen Rippy, 12-8-08

“The crew at Studio X (left to right):  Stan LePard, Stephen Rippy, Reed Ruddy, Josh Evans, and Mike Kutchman”