Live Orchestra for The Hobbit

Oct 1, 2003 12:00 PM, By Rod Abernethy

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I once heard Buzz Burroughs, director of audio at Sony Computer Entertainment and game audio guru, jokingly say, “The only post-production in video games is the shrinkwrap that's put on the jewel case.” It's not far from the truth. Post-production, as most audio engineers know it, doesn't exist yet in video games. Yes, there is dialog, sound effects and music, and they can all be set to pre-determined levels for the final video game audio mix, but unlike film and television, the audio elements in video games are really being “mixed” unknowingly by the player as he or she plays the game, with infinite possibilities and variations.

Writing for video games today, especially for a major release like The Hobbit, can incorporate the same approach as scoring for film and television. Other times, it's a completely different journey with a different set of rules. Composing and creating sound design for film is a linear process: The visuals already exist and you can see what you're writing for. Instead of writing long-form music compositions, the video game composer must break themes and variations into segments that can be pieced together as the game is played. It's an audio “jigsaw puzzle,” and its pieces must have many different and sometimes endless ways of fitting together.

Bringing a sweeping Celtic orchestral soundtrack to The Hobbit for Game-cube, Playstation 2 and Xbox was a challenge. Celtic live orchestra? But it's only a game. Well, if you haven't checked in on your teenager lately (or stopped by the Dolby booth at any trade show!), you should know that video games have changed in recent years. With high-resolution video/animation, DVD playback and 5.1 surround sound, video games now rival feature films in look and sound, and the gamers now demand it.

At our studio, Rednote Audio (formerly Slackmates), we have been creating music and sound design for video games for five years, writing in styles ranging from techno/grunge to post-modern orchestral. My team/partners/fellow composers in Raleigh, N.C., include Dave Adams and Jason Graves. The Hobbit, to be released November 11, 2003, has been our most challenging, but rewarding, project to date.

From the beginning, we knew that the music had to convey the mood and feel of Middle Earth in this incredible Tolkien adventure. It sometimes had to be intimate and organic, other times bold and fierce: a perfect project to combine vintage gear with modern digital recording methods. We were asked to compose a Celtic orchestral soundtrack and get paid for doing it. What more could you ask for?

Fortunately, Inevitable Entertainment, developer of The Hobbit, had the insight and desire to use live orchestra, and we were awarded the project on the merits of a demo we created specifically for it. Intensive planning and direction by Marc Schaefgen, audio supervisor at Inevitable Entertainment, and Chance Thomas, Tolkien music director for Vivendi Universal Games, led us on our Hobbit journey to Seattle for recording sessions at Studio X with the Northwest Sinfonia. This orchestra has been recording music for film and video games for more than 10 years, including hit video games Medal of Honor, Myst III: Exile and Total Annihilation. But before recording the orchestra came the real work.

PRE-PRODUCTION


We began The Hobbit with research: reading Tolkien's literature and immersing ourselves in the world of Bilbo, Gandalf and Gollum. Bilbo's enchanting world needed a music score that was simple, melodic and organic for his adventures through Middle Earth, switching to bold and dramatic for the combat scenes. Reading the literature, one can hear fiddles, wood flutes, bagpipes, guitar, mandolins and bodhrans. And when a fight or battle occurs, one can imagine the pulse of low chugging strings, dramatic percussion and moving brass lines and stabs.

As always, there were many discussions with the developer regarding the game's design, look and feel. The game has been designed for family viewing and has the look of an animated film. The player will control Bilbo from his peaceful Hobbit hole in Hobbiton into the dark and harrowing Mirkwood forest and, finally, to the Lonely Mountain, home of Smaug the dragon. Bilbo is a spry, cute little character, and very skillful with his sword “Sting” as he battles trolls, goblins, giant spiders and other mysterious creatures. As the game progresses, he acquires items, knowledge and the courage to help him complete his quest. Following the original Tolkien story, it's a mix of lushly animated, flowing landscapes and dark, menacing underworlds.

Once the budget was approved for over 75 minutes of original music, Schaefgen at Inevitable created a “cue” list, which detailed every music track for the game and served as our composition's road map. The scores were split into two categories: acoustic instrumental for Bilbo's exploration and live orchestral for the action/combat scenes.

The game is divided into chapters and regions/scenes, with each scene having its own musical requirements, including themes for different characters and places in the story. Most music cues in a scene are normally 20 to 30 seconds long and are rated in levels of intensity. As the scene is played, these cues must fit together in any given order but still sound cohesive. To finish out the scene, there is a “Win-Stinger” and a “Lose-Stinger” to match each level of intensity, depending on where the player stops game play during the scene. This process was carried to produce music for more than 210 music cues spanning over six chapters and 40 scenes.

At the project's beginning, there was no way for us to play the game and get a feel for each scene. With artwork, scripts and weekly conference calls, Inevitable's design team gave us detailed descriptions, but as the game developed, we received rough builds and were able to play it with our demo music in place so we could fine-tune the music before the final scores were completed.

KNOW YOUR HOBBITS!


“There are no marimbas in Hobbiton,” said Chance Thomas, the Tolkien music director, after he reviewed one of our battle cues that had a marimba line being played through a combat scene. He was right. We recorded demos for every scene in the game and sent them to Thomas, who kept us on track with Tolkien's Middle Earth moods and style.

We recorded all of the demos at Rednote Audio, which houses a mix of vintage analog gear and contemporary DAWs. We knew that most of these acoustic instrumental demos would be used in the game if approved by the Tolkien team, so we made the extra effort to record them as final takes. We recorded ourselves and other performers playing traditional Celtic instruments, including six- and 12-string guitar, fiddle, Irish flute, bouzouki, mandolin, bodhran, hammered dulcimer and uillean pipes in our 25×30-foot live room using MOTU's Digital Performer with 896s, vintage API preamps, a silver-faced UREI 1176, two AKG 414s, a vintage Neumann U67 and Oktava MK012s. Our solo takes of the guitars and bouzouki were recorded with the Oktava MK012s in an X-Y pattern, API 512 mic pre's and the Manley Variable-MU stereo comp/limiter. The Neumann U67 and a Neve 1272 mic pre were also used, about two feet behind the Oktavas to help define the center “sweet spot.”

The orchestra demos were also written and produced at Rednote Audio using library samples that would later be replaced by the Northwest Sinfonia in Seattle at Studio X. Jason Graves arranged our demos for live orchestra using an amazing music-publishing program, Sibelius, to edit and print out the parts. Manuscript preparation took us from Raleigh to Seattle, printing out scores from Sibelius in the hotel room one hour before the sessions at Studio X. Oh, how we love those last-minute crunches!

RECORDING THE ORCHESTRA


Studio X owner/engineer Reed Ruddy and engineer Sam Hofstedt recorded the live orchestra sessions at their Seattle facility, which has a long history of recording groups like R.E.M., Aerosmith, Nirvana and Pearl Jam, along with major film soundtracks. Simon James of Simon James Music contracted the players for the Northwest Sinfonia and acted as concertmaster. We budgeted for the orchestra using an online tool that Simon has created just for that purpose. You can find it on his Website at www.simonjamesmusic.com/frameset.html.

Studio X has a large live room that easily accommodated the 40-piece orchestra. The sessions were recorded just as they would be for most film scores using a traditional orchestra setup. Gobos separated various sections, and the harpist was placed in an iso booth. Most cues were :05 to :30 in length, and Jason Graves conducted the sessions without a hitch. The Northwest Sinfonia are extremely experienced players, nailing each cue on the second to third time through. We worked at a fairly fast pace through two six-hour sessions with a 10-minute break each hour. The orchestra did not have any problems playing with headphones and preferred to play to a click instead of our original demos through the cans.

We've learned from experience that the orchestra performs better if we string short cues of :05 to :15 together in groups, playing four to five cues in a row with pauses of four measures in between each cue. Having the orchestra play straight through these groups of cues keeps their performance really sharp and also saves time overall. To put it simply, it's easier to have them keep playing than to have them stop/start/stop/start.

To record the orchestra, we used Digital Performer on a G4 PowerBook, recording directly from Studio X's incredible collection of vintage mics, Grace preamps and an SSL board into our MOTU 896 FireWire interface. For the hard drive recorder, we used an Apple Ipod. It was strange seeing everything routed into our little Mac laptop, but it allowed us to come home and immediately begin editing and mixing. Plus, it sounded great.

Back at Rednote Audio, we replaced the demo-sampled orchestra tracks with the live orchestra tracks and mixed the entire game score soundtrack in Dolby Pro Logic II surround sound using Digital Performer 4 on a G4 Mac and a Mackie D8B Digital Mixer, monitoring through self-powered Mackie HR824s and HR624s. A touch of Audio Ease's Altiverb plug-in was used for an orchestral hall, and the Kurzweil RSP8 was used for the overall surround sound mix effects. We also mixed the sound design and surround mixes for music and sound design for the in-game cinematics (short movies that tell the story as game play evolves) and for the film and television ad trailers.

Due to memory restrictions on the DVD game disc, Nintendo recommends 32k for audio playback in the Gamecube Xbox, and Playstation 2 supports audio playback up to 48k. All final mixes for the game were recorded at 16-bit/32k, converted to MP3s for playback on the Gamecube and ADPCMs for Playstation 2 and Xbox. These mixes were sent to Schaefgen at Inevitable, where he and other audio programmers placed the music into the game.

“The gamers want it…” is a commonly heard phrase in game development. Game audio A.I. (artificial intelligence) is becoming “smarter” all of the time, as the demand for better sound, graphics and interactivity grows. There are new audio tools being introduced that will allow game composers and sound designers the ability to mix audio in real time as the game is being played. The gap is narrowing between audio for games and film/television production, but due to the “nature of the beast,” games will always require a different technical approach from films and other methods of audio production.

Any way you look at it, audio production for video games has evolved from the 3-track sequenced beeps of the early '80s to today's live orchestral soundtracks. The sound of game music has become so sophisticated and complex that it's sometimes hard to distinguish it from its film-score sibling. At its best, it brings the player closer to a truly interactive experience, something film scores can't do.

If you want to learn more about the production and profession of video game audio, visit the game Audio Network Guild's Website (www.audiogang.org), an organization created by video game audio producers, composers and sound designers to help promote better game audio.


Rod Abernethy (rod@rednoteaudio.com) is a game audio composer/designer based in Raleigh, N.C. He would like to thank Dave Adams and Jason Graves for their help in penning this article, and his manager, Bob Rice, of Four Bars Intertainment.






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