Halo Wars 2 Composers speak to us about the Game’s Impressive Score

By now we should all have heard of one of the most anticipated video games coming to the Xbox One and Windows 10 PC known as Halo Wars 2. The first game was released on the Xbox 360 back in 2009, and then was released as Halo Wars: Definitive Edition on the Xbox One and Windows computer in June 2016.

Halo Wars 2

Folks who have never purchased Halo Wars: Definitive Edition, will get the game should they decide to grab the Ultimate Edition of Halo Wars 2 when it’s released on February 21, 2017.

With just three months left before the release of Halo Wars 2, we got the chance to speak with Gordy Haab, Brian Trifon & Brian Lee White of Finishing Move Inc., the composers of Halo Wars 2. We talked mainly about the game’s score, which sounds wonderful from the little we have heard so far.

Let’s get down to this interview, shall we?

Did you all feel any pressure coming into and already existing franchise?

BRIAN W: There will always be a bit of pressure when working on a huge franchise with an existing fan base and musical pedigree. Finishing Move has been working on Halo stuff for a few years now, with the Halo Anniversary releases and the Halo Channel music, so we were already pretty comfortable with the pillars of the Halo sound. Gordy had a ton of experience coming into an existing franchise and the specific challenges expectations that entail from his work on the Star Wars games, so I think we were all pretty comfortable and up to the challenge.

Did you all connect with Halo War’s composer Stephen Rippy before beginning work?

GORDY: Not directly.  But we did choose to reimagine the theme he composed for the “Spirit of Fire” as a recurring theme throughout our score. It has been reharmonized and rearranged to fit the musical language we developed for the rest of our score, of course. But, because the Spirit of Fire is such an important part of the Halo Wars 2 story, it seemed only fitting to nod our heads to its original theme.

What type of software, hardware or instrumentation do you use?to create the game’s score?

GORDY: To stay in keeping with the tradition of Halo music, we feature a large choir in our score. We also wanted to blend traditional and modern sounds in a way that was powerful and epic, but also sophisticated. So we chose to combine modern synths and layered hybrid percussion with a large-scale, 80 piece symphonic orchestra, comprised of the best musicians in Hollywood. To further ensure a high level of sophistication, Gordy chose to maintain control of the orchestration process as well – both composing and orchestrating the score primarily with “pencil and paper” before finalizing the orchestration in Finale notation software.

Gordy

BRIAN T: In addition to the live recorded orchestra and standard DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) software that we use (Logic, Pro Tools, Digital Performer, and Cubase) we created many of the textural and ambient sounds from a custom software instrument that we’ve built called Posthuman. Posthuman allows us to create unique organic textures that transform and evolve over time. We were so happy with the results we were getting from the instrument that we’ve made plans to commercially release the software instrument early next year.

If you could describe the Halo Wars 2 score in one sentence what would it be?

BRIAN W: Halo music, elevated.

What type of materials do developers give you to create the feel for the game?

BRIAN W: We had access to artwork and gameplay footage, all the usual stuff game composers receive. Of course, we had all the cinematic cutscenes to score to picture with, those gave us a really good idea of the characters and story arc of the game, especially when it came to writing specific themes for the characters. Since this is a sequel, we could also play the original and get a feel for what make Halo Wars a unique RTS game.

Technically speaking, what has your collaboration been like? Meaning are things mostly done over Skype or in a studio together

BRIAN W: So typically one team would start a cue idea, depending on what type of cue it was going to be (orchestral heavy, electronic heavy, etc.) and once that idea was in decent shape we would kick that over to the other team as audio stems and MIDI data over the internet, that team would then add their stuff and then it was just rinse-and-repeat until the cues were finished and approved in the game. Finishing Move uses Logic and Pro Tools while Gordy and his team use Digital Performer and Cubase so trading raw audio and MIDI tracks was the easiest way to collaborate. We all stayed in sync mostly via group text, which was probably used about 10% for actual serious correspondence and 90% for just cracking jokes with each other. Of course, we all came together in person for the live orchestral recording session at the Fox Newman Scoring Stage in LA and the choir session at Skywalker Sound.

Playdead, the developers of ‘Inside’, used a human skull to create the game’s score. Is that something you would ever consider doing? What is the craziest thing you have ever played?

BRIAN T: First of all, we’re all huge fans of Martin Stig Andersen (the sound designer for Playdead ‘Inside’) he has an incredible sonic aesthetic! However, we have no plans to record a human skull.

halo-wars-2-title

With regard to craziest sounds used in the Halo Wars 2 score – one of the frequent melodic textures that I used both in HW2 and also in Halo 2 Anniversary is built off a recording I made of a squeaky oven door in my kitchen. If you slowly open the oven door it makes a high pitched, but very tonal metallic squeak. I tuned the squeak, stretched it and mapped it across the keyboard in a sampler so that it functions as a melodic instrument.

The music from the original Halo games gave players a sense of adventure. Will Halo Wars 2 do the same?

BRIAN W: Absolutely! Because Halo Wars 2 is an RTS style game, we paid a lot of attention to the different types of gameplay a user will experience and how the music should score those moments. For example, sometimes you might spend long stretches just chilling out, base building, etc., there, you aren’t in the heat of a huge battle, so the music should reflect that sentiment. When the battle does start to kick in, it might just be in a small skirmish, so the music will react to that dynamically, building tension and a sense of danger. Of course in all-out war, you want the most bombastic and thematically rewarding cues, and this is when you hear the huge orchestra really kick in with the big themes and all the feels.

Halo Wars 2 takes place on the mythical Ark. How much does setting affect the score?

GORDY: The setting definitely affects the score. In fact, there is a musical theme written specifically for the Ark in HW2. But the music is even more affected by the heroes and villains in the story. Each character has a designated theme, treated with a somewhat traditional, leit motif approach.  So in many cases, depending on the characters involved in a given moment, these themes will intertwine with each other. And depending on the setting or scenario, the themes change color, mood or intensity in order to score the scene, much like a great film score.

Since you all first got in the business, do you think video game scores have evolved at all?

BRIAN T: Yes absolutely. The recording and production quality of game scores has certainly improved in the last decade as well as the interactivity of the music. That being said, great melodies and great musical ideas will always remain iconic, regardless of the production limitations. A lot of the music from the NES and SNES games from our childhood are still some of our favorite pieces of music.

GORDY: But as the business has thrived, the music budgets have grown tremendously, which has allowed for the music production value to rival that of any other genre or media. Add ; there are industry-wide respect and understanding of just how impactful a great score can be.  It’s a great time to be a composer for games!

All in all, I had a great time talking to the music composers of Halo Wars 2.

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Vamien McKalin possesses the awesome power of walking on water like a boss. He’s also a person who enjoys writing about technology, comics, video games, and anything related to the geek world.