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Jack Wall and the Music of Mass Effect 2

RickDamigella
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Posted January 30, 2010 - By Rick Damigella

No game soundtrack review this weekend gang. We've got you something cooler. Jack Wall, video game soundtrack composer and co-creator/conductor of the Video Games Live concert tour, took time to answer some questions (including one from one of you!) about the music of Mass Effect 2.

The Feed: Is this really your first video game soundtrack since Mass Effect? Have you been that busy with Video Games Live and other things?

Jack Wall: Yes, actually that's true. I wanted to focus on making VGL a success in 2008/9 as we had enormous opportunity to travel all over the world and build a brand as well as conduct some of the finest orchestras in the world playing some great music. It's been a tremendously rewarding experience. With ME2, I was very excited to get back to composing and producing which represents my creative core that I never want to let go. It's good to be back!

The Feed: You worked with a similar team of composers to the original Mass Effect. No Richard Jacques this time, but we get the talents of Jimmy Hinson. What did this change bring to the creative dynamic?

JW: Yes, we very much missed Richard Jacques on this one as his very cinematic, orchestral sound brought some very beautiful moments to Mass Effect. The approach to "The Citadel," (which) he composed using themes that Sam and I wrote, is still one of my favorites in the series! In his absence, I think that David Kates, returning, brought some real beauty to the score. David played with emotion the most of the four of us, and I ended up nurturing that (not to mention that it helped to influence my own writing) as I feel that music is one of the few pure ways to bring out the the raw story. Jimmy Hinson was a real find for me. He remixed 10 of my original compositions from Mass Effect before I even hired him and I saw him more as someone who would bring song structure if you will, to the score. He has a real knack for bringing wonderful rhythmic beds to the music without sounding "dancey," which is a true skill and talent of his. I'm really looking forward to working with him more in the future. Of course Sam Hulick brings a rawness and edge to Mass Effect, not to mention he penned some seriously memorable themes including those for Shepard, Sovereign and the dreamy "Uncharted Worlds". All in all, the team brings a real depth that has served the series well. It's been fun to lead them and find the sum greater than the parts. I think we all make the individual writing better and that's really the point.
 
The Feed: How much of the music is similar to the original ME and how much is completely original to ME2?

JW: Since ME2 is largely based on squad acquisition, we created new themes for each character which is really a big part of the score. Also, the main story has new characters and situations which tell another part of the trilogy's story, so much of the music is new. However, elements of Shepard's theme - the theme that opens ME, were used throughout as well as various other bits. For example, "The Attack" uses a theme from "The Normandy" from ME and then "Saren's Theme" was recalled for moments involving the Geth as well as "Sovereign's Theme" recalling the reapers.

The Feed: Did you approach this game any differently than the original in terms of inspiration for its sound?

JW: The story is darker and so we went for a darker, more aleatoric (at times) and orchestral approach. It's funny how a lot of people are noticing this and appreciate how the music is following this side and part of the story - that's a good thing! Definitely wanted to keep a good bit of the electronic sound in there as this was such an important part of the original.
 
The Feed: What kind of instrumentation did you use to record the soundtrack?

JW: More orchestral elements than last time mixed with Moog synths and various other electronic instruments. For "The Collector's Theme," I went with a very organic, tribal drum rhythm to reflect the hive or pack feeling that they give. I also incorporated a solo piano and cello motif for "Humans are Disappearing" that was reflective of Shepard's loneliness in his quest to save the galaxy.

The Feed: All this music doesn’t just compose itself overnight. How much time do you get to plan and compose a soundtrack of this size?

JW: Well, with game development, you never really can count on the schedule it seems because every game seems to take longer than expected to finish. They are so complicated to make and I'm just so used to the schedule bending because of dependencies between all of the various disciplines required to make the game: ie: cinematics are always last to be locked and so that can push a schedule all by itself. The remarkable thing about Mass Effect 2 was that they didn't slip beyond their first target date. That is incredibly rare, but is a testament to the team in Edmonton who pulled this off. We had a tremendous amount of pressure on our end at the close of the production. I was originally contracted for 100 minutes of music, but it ended up being over 160! So I don't think anyone could have predicted that at the outset and so the job just swelled up for me and much came near the end. The added responsibility of implementing the score made the task even that much more daunting, though welcome. I understood at all times what the music was going to do to the gameplay.

The Feed: Can you tell The Feed’s readers about the composing process for video games? Is it vastly different than with movies or TV?

JW: In technical and some creative ways, the answer is definitely yes! My process on this game was to get a build of the game from BioWare, then play a level with the audio director on the phone. We'd spot the level for where music should and shouldn't go and create a hypothesis of how music would work. Then Brian and I (Brian DiDomenico was the Wwise implementer for the music side of the project) would add all cues and notes to the database. Next, I'd play the level one more time to start to formulate the tonality of the music and create video captures for the level. I'd then assign the music to be composed or start composing myself using the video capture to compose to. Once the music was composed, Brian and I would put music in the game and massage the transitions to create a seamless flow of intensity for combat, exploration and conversation as well as cinematic moments. Then we'd play the game to test how that effected the gameplay. I'd go through two to three rounds of this internally to get the music working well. Then I'd send off to BioWare in a format that was plug and play in the game. BioWare would then review it - also while playing the game - and we'd make any requested changes. We did this for over 30 separate levels. A lot of work! :)

The Feed: We have a question from one of our viewers, "GBOriginal": "The music of Mass Effect 2 and ME don’t sound like typical sci-fi themes. Where did your inspiration for the music of Mass Effect 2 come from?"

JW: Well, honestly, the vision for the 80's-style synth sci-fi score reminiscent of and influenced by Blade Runner, Vangelis and Tangerine Dream came from game director Casey Hudson. He knew what he wanted. I think that his confidence that I could pull it off was fairly courageous and I'm grateful to him for putting me in that wonderful position. I very much enjoyed going down this path with the score. I enjoy doing things that are regarded as "different" from what is the norm. I like to discover found sound. New ideas that push the medium. It is what keeps me interested and passionate about music and sound. I think that game music is in a sort of heyday with many really talented people writing some amazing stuff.

The Feed: Let’s talk about the soundtrack album release. This is a massive set! Two discs, running nearly 2 hours is a ton of music for fans. What are listeners getting?

JW: All of the main themes from the game that we felt would create a listenable experience outside the game. We didn't want to throw everything in as motifs repeat and the edits I did for each theme represent my take on the essence of those themes. There is actually a LOT more music in the game, but not sure how interesting outside the game itself. I'll probably get hammered for that statement...

The Feed: What are the considerations or limitations when putting game music into a linear listening format?

JW: For me, I want to hear some sort of musical arc that helps tell the story in a different way - just with music. That is how I approach editing for a soundtrack. Again, I don't want to just throw all of the cues from the game out there as it just won't mean the same thing as it was originally intended. The soundtrack is meant to outline the story sonically and that's it's job.

The Feed: At the time of this interview, Mass Effect 2 is the 19th best selling soundtrack album on iTunes. That is an overall chart too, with TV, movies and game soundtrack sales combined. (The next closest game soundtrack album is MAG at #45). What’s your reaction to that?

JW: Happiness.

The Feed: I checked and found that the original Mass Effect soundtrack album ranks #11 (as of press time) on the best selling animation and video game soundtrack section of Amazon. Technically, it is the #2 selling video game soundtrack album currently, behind Halo 3: ODST. What can you attribute this longevity of popularity to?

JW: The title is engaging and has one of the best stories in video games. It is also a richer experience than most of the big shooters out there as there are RPG elements, yet with the action elements not usually associated with big RPG titles. It's finite and has a definable story arc. I think BioWare has actually invented this genre. Noone else does what they do - making the traditional twitch games more engaging. I love playing Gears of War, Halo and other shooters, and I enjoy their vibe and stories, but this is a different kind of immersive because of the signature BioWare RPG model. I think people hook in and stay hooked because of that. The music is part of that experience. I couldn't be more fortunate and grateful to them for involving me in this like they have.

The Feed: Now since you are so heavily involved with VGL, did you try out any of these pieces or even ideas for them in front of a live audience before committing them to Mass Effect 2? And the natural follow up question: Will future VGL shows be featuring the music of Mass Effect 2?

JW: If only! I really didn't have the time to audition pieces for the live audience as we were really deep just trying to get it all done for the game. I hope to have new ME2 music in the show of course.

The Feed: Last question: Is there a game or game franchise that would make you say, “Hey, I REALLY want to put my musical pedigree on that?”

JW: Yes. Mass Effect 3. :)

Jack Wall and the Music of Mass Effect 2
http://www.g4tv.com/thefeed/blog/post/702223/jack-wall-and-the-music-of-mass-effect-2/
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