Interview With The Composers Of Halo Wars 2
How do you compose a dynamic soundtrack? How do you decide what instruments to use? How do you work
with themes created by legendary composers? These questions and more we put to composers Brian Lee White & Brian Trifon of Finishing Move and Gordy Haab, the trio behind the soundtrack of Halo Wars 2!
Xbox One UK: What was the first action you all took in beginning to compose Halo Wars 2’s score, and how did the process continue from there?
Brian Trifon: The first thing we did was identify the aesthetic that collectively we wanted to create for the score. That process involved many conversations between the 3 of us and the audio director Paul Lipson; as well as spending time looking at concept art, early gameplay video captures and listening to a lot of music (both previous Halo scores and other soundtracks and albums) to get a sense of what felt appropriate for Halo Wars 2. From there, we began doing initial musical sketches and created an arsenal of sounds custom to the project that we wanted to use throughout the score.
Gordy Haab: We also needed to sort out exactly how a collaboration would work. Which under any other
circumstances could have presented challenges. But it was in fact pretty easy for us to quickly pinpoint where all of our individual strengths lied, and exactly how these strengths could be combined to create something where the whole was greater than the sum of its parts.
XOUK: As is evident by the title, Halo Wars 2 has a strong military focus. Did that affect your emotional portrayal of the characters in any way?
BT: Halo music has always had militaristic elements, namely in the percussion and brass. We continued that tradition with the music in Halo Wars 2.
XOUK: Halo Wars 2’s soundtrack is dynamic in that it grows during the action and recedes during quieter moments. From an audience’s perspective that’s impressive to observe, but is it a pain to create?
Brian Lee White: Highly interactive scores can be quite a challenge, so we spent a lot of time early on determining how we would structure the music to grow and contract during the different types of gameplay you might find yourself in. So if you’re base building and there isn’t a lot going on, you might hear a minimal sounding atmospheric cue but when you ramp up into battle, the cues dynamically ratchet up in intensity. For development, we labeled the cues with colors (green, yellow, red, super-red) to distinguish the intensity. Each map will have a full set of “color” cues and each cue is further broken out into multiple stems to help it adapt in the mix of voiceover and sound design.
This of course has to get all implemented in the game and wired up with specific logic regarding what happens when, this was done by the excellent audio team at Creative Assembly. Interactive scores are really a collaboration between the composers, the middleware implementers and the audio engineers.
XOUK: How did you decide which instruments to use? Were you given a specific set, do you all have instruments you prefer to incorporate, or was it a case of seeing what worked best?
GH: The exact instrumentation was an evolving thing throughout the composing process. We knew that we wanted the music to be cinematic in the traditional sense, so the orchestra would be a centerpiece of the sound. But as to specific instrumentation, this is something that was determined as the musical needs unfolded. Because the score needed to follow some pretty epic battles, we ultimately decided to feature a large brass section in a way that had not been done in the Halo universe. We also wanted to anchor the sound of our score to the original music of the franchise, so chose to use a full choir as well. The final orchestra came out to be an 80 member Hollywood studio orchestra and full choir. Plus infinite amounts of electronic elements – percussive, melodic, and textural, found its way into our music.
BT: With regard to the non-orchestral textures and instruments, we made an effort to create complimentary synth sounds and textures that blend well with the live musicians as well as add a visceral low end that you can really feel.
XOUK: Many games – and films, for that matter – have a single composer. What benefits are there to the soundtrack and you as individuals in working as a team over working in isolation?
BLW: Working as team allows everyone to lend their special talents to achieve something greater than a single individual could realize on their own. Combining Gordy’s incredible orchestral talents with our hybrid production and musical sound design really allowed us to up the ante on this score. In addition, Halo music has always had a very wide stylistic scope, from beautifully thematic orchestral pieces, to moody synth ambiences, even straight up guitar rock, so when you’re covering a wide range of sounds it really helps to have a team to lend their unique talents on any given cue.
GH: I’ll add again, that with a collaboration, you never quite know how it will work out – even with all the best intentions. But this was a case where it really worked perfectly. We each understood our roles, and made great efforts to deliver our best work. This is certainly important to a good collaboration. But probably moreso, we hit it off. We became great friends. Which made the process fun and allowed us to really do our best work in an effortless way.
XOUK: For Brian and Brian, having worked on remastering the Halo 2 Anniversary soundtrack, was Halo Wars 2 to you an opportunity to put more of your own sound into the Halo universe than what Anniversary offered?
BT: Absolutely! When we did Halo 2 Anniversary we had to stick very closely to the original; it was more or less a note for note recreation of the Halo 2 score. We did change some things and updated all of the sounds and textures, but we had to stick to the score that Martin O’Donnell and Michael Salvatori composed. With Halo Wars 2 we were not bound to any past score and we were able to go much deeper into our own sound.
XOUK: For Gordy, having composed the scores for Star Wars: The Old Republic and Star Wars Battlefront, is there something about science-fiction titles in particular you enjoy working on?
GH: Yes. I love science fiction! And in particular, I love the type of “larger than life” music science fiction calls for. With the Star Wars titles I work on, I’ve been able to live out a dream I have had since I was 6 years old – writing music like the great scores of John Williams. His music was so influential during my formative years. This certainly helped when scoring the Star Wars titles, but also while scoring Halo. Because my foundation for understanding how music influences story, character and emotion, comes from my love of music in the Sci-Fi genre.
XOUK: Whether it be Martin O’Donnell and Michael Salvatori or John Williams, you’ve all worked with the music of legendary composers. How do you each mentally approach the task of creating something new whilst working within expectations of an iconic sound?
GH: It is certainly important to pay homage to the sound of the original music when faced with this challenge. But we felt it was very important to allow ourselves to be “ourselves” as well. This is so important for a composer coming into an existing franchise, where you have just two choices: Imitate the existing music, or absorb what makes the existing music what it is – and then just be yourself. This is something I’ve become very accustomed to from my work in the Star Wars universe. I’ve always seen my options as either “paint by number” – where you’re just filling in the
blanks of an existing structure. Or, the better option, adopt the original painters palette. This way you have the same
colors at your disposal, but you’re free to “paint” whatever comes to your mind. And the result will ultimately evoke the same feelings, but will be completely your original aesthetic.
If we were to just imitate the existing Halo music, we’d be doing a disservice to the fans (because it would never actually “be” the original) and a disservice to ourselves (because it would never be “us”). So we chose to study the original, adopt that color palette, but then just be ourselves. The risk is that fans may like one or the other more or less. But at the very least, we can say we’ve contributed our own original vision to the Halo universe.
XOUK: Finally, if you could compose a piece of music for any scene in everyday life, which scene would you choose and why?
BT: I’d compose the music for people living under a desolate freeway underpass. Somber, depressing, and slightly creepy music is what comes most naturally!
BLW: Good summer driving music, something you’d listen to driving up the pacific coast highway. I live in LA, so it’s almost always sunny and you’re always driving.
GH: Well, we composers spend a lot of time in our studios alone, writing. So I had remind myself what everyday life was like. When I do get out, I play tennis. So maybe I’d score one of my tennis matches from my own perspective. High action, fast paced, lots of hopefulness and anticipation to get the audience behind me – but likely resolving to an inevitable sad ending.
XOUK: Brian, Brian, and Gordy, many thanks!
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