Interview with Bungie's Marty O'Donnell


Posted September 25, 2010 - By Rick Damigella

Marty O'Donnell

The Feed got to chat with Bungie’s Audio Director, Marty O’Donnell via subspace relay (the telephone) recently, and we asked him about everything from what went into creating the music for Halo: Reach, putting together the game’s soundtrack album and what he is working on next with Bungie.  We even let a few of our readers ask some questions. Hit the plasma-blue link below for the full interview.

The Feed: This is your fifth Halo soundtrack.  Are they just coming easier to you at this point or is it becoming more challenging with each game?

Marty O’Donnell: You know it feels more challenging with each game because, especially for some reason after Halo: ODST, where you know our initial thought about ODST was this is just going to be sort of an extension of Halo 3, it's a small sub-story, it's going to be, ya know, we're going to get it done fast, it's going to be sort of small and it sort of grew as we were working on it and the score, uh, just needed to be entirely new so you know a year ago I put out the soundtrack for ODST which was you know, hours and hours of music in the game, it was all brand new and it was a two CD soundtrack. And immediately after finishing that I had to jump right into Reach which I had been sort of been working on along the way. the last year of ODST, some of us were already working on Reach. And there I was on day one last August where I realized I gotta do this again. I gotta come up with another five hours of music and it felt pretty daunting because I also wanted to do something new again, not have it based on Halo 1, 2 and 3, so doing that for ODST then turning right around and doing it again for Reach felt pretty daunting.

The Feed: What was the inspiration for the music this time around?

Marty O’Donnell: What was nice about it was right from the beginning when we came up with the idea that we were going to do a sequel, instead of doing Halo 4, a continuation of where we left off with Master Chief and Cortana, floating in space, we decided to go back in time and actually do the prequel, do the story of Reach. Once we decided on doing Reach it was pretty obvious that this was more like “Titanic” it was a story where people knew what the ending is. Reach falls. We were not going to make that a mystery but we knew that this is the planet Reach which falls, which is this place where the Spartan program started and there were Spartans that died on Reach, and it's going to be a story about a group of Spartans that heroically sacrifice themselves so that humanity could be saved in the future by Master Chief. So once you know that, that's a really great starting point to say, “okay what's the overall tone of the music going to be like?” It has to be something that has a lot of gravity and pathos and emotion because it's sacrificial, it's heroic. It's just a different, more somber, visceral kind of feeling.

The Feed: How much music ended up being created for Reach?

Marty O’Donnell: I think we have over 1,700 music files in the game engine. Not necessarily every one of those things ships, but it's what's available to me and that was based on about five hours of music. And by the time I dissemble it, turn it into music files, and put it in the game, if you were to listen to everything end to end, it would almost be eight hours of music files. I'm pretty sure that the game itself ships with probably about somewhere close to five hours of music. Just sort of raw tracks that can be assembled by the engine. It's a lot.

The Feed: Now what goes into pairing all that music into a two album soundtrack set?

Marty O’Donnell: Well you know it's interesting because I put on a few different hats when I am working music for Halo. The first hat I like to put on is sort of the dramatic storyteller hat where I'm sitting with the writers and we're thinking about casting, and thinking about the big story we are going to tell and the specific moments that we want to have enhanced and the emotional journey of the player. So, I'm thinking in sort of big picture story terms at first. And then as a composer, I know in order for music to be listenable in my opinion, you know especially the big scenes, the big pieces, there has to be a beginning, middle and an end. It has to take you on some sort of a journey. So I make sure the music itself starts from that stand point of composing pieces that start some place and take you some place. Then after I'm done with that I make sure that technically I've done it in such a way that I can dissemble it and then I sort of put on my music editor/game designer hat and I think about how do I take all these pieces and split them up into files and layers and emotional moments that can work with each other and layer on top of each other and score the game in our engine. So that is a whole different way of looking at how to use music. And when I am done with that and we ship the game, then I have to go, oh wait a minute, now I have to put on a different hat to be sort of the album producer and say, how do I reassemble everything in a way that can still maybe remind people of the journey they took when they played the game but still make it a nice listenable experience. So at that point I think I sort of more music producer and see how I can take all the music we did and sort of reassemble it and fix it in a place where it's an enjoyable listening experience.

Halo Reach Soundtrack

The Feed:
Well you did a fantastic job on it because it plays just wonderfully from top to tail.

Marty O’Donnell: Oh, that's great! Well thanks! I appreciate that. Yeah, I never know. Sometimes I get so close to it. As a matter of fact when Mike Salvatori and I went back to Chicago after we had shipped the game and it was done, it took me awhile to sort of reassemble everything, and put all the big mixes back together essentially and I sent it to Mike and I said here's the order, the rough order of the way it needs to go and the way it needs to be in the game but lets get together. So I flew back to Chicago to Mike Salvatori’s studio and we spent about three days just putting it together and deciding what should stay and what should go, when the big pieces should play and sometimes I'm just like, “well haven't they heard this already? Didn't we already do this once? Wait, is this the same as that other thing?” With this much music to wrangle sometimes just kind of forget and you don't know if it's going to be enjoyable to people. So, I'm glad to hear that you’ve listened to it.

The Feed: What's instrumentation and orchestras did you use for creating the music for Halo: Reach?

Marty O’Donnell:
Besides myself and Mike we had two other composers working with me. Stan LePard, who has been an orchestra guy I've worked it  for years, but he also contributed some tracks on ODST and then C Paul Johnson who is our lead audio designer here also did some music and he did some music for ODST and he started by contributing some stuff for Halo 3 which was really helpful. So I got three other guys besides myself but I would come up with themes and rhythms and keys and a whole bunch of just sort basic sounds or pads that I had chord progressions going. And I shared that all with them early in the process and I just said, okay guys, go nuts, whatever you want to do if this inspires you to do anything just base it off of this stuff that I've started. Then I'll sort of take whatever you do back and add to it or ask you to finish it up, change it in someway or whatever. With that we have my studio, C Paul's studio, Stan’s studio and Mike's studio in Chicago. So there's actually four studios involved and each guy has their own unique samples. For example C Paul has very, very similar samples that I have. We basically borrow the same gear and so everybody starts with sort of a basic template and palette and some of my instructions about moods and keys and stuff like that. C Paul for example has a friend who's a really good drummer in LA so he sent a couple of his tracks down to this guy named Sky, who added some extra drums for a couple of his pieces and I would take the final piece from C Paul and I would add some extra strings to it or put my voice on it or add some more piano or do something to it. So we have guitar, bass, drums, samples, vocals, and then of course the North West Symphonia and Chorale up here at Studio X. That's sort of the last things I do is I look at all the pieces I think should be orchestrated into bigger pieces with orchestra and choir and go in and finish them up with those people. All during this period I'm making files out of these things and I'm saying okay well I'm going to take these pieces and make them into orchestral and choral pieces. And by the time I'm done, it was I think the second week of June of this last summer, I was done finally recording and producing all the music. And then it was time to stick it in the game somehow.

The Feed: You're pretty active on Twitter. You talk to your fans and you talk to the Bungie faithful out there. What does that bring to you as an artist and as a creative force?

Marty O’Donnell: You know, that is interesting. No one has asked me about Twitter. Bungie was already one of the pioneers of social networking back when we released Halo 1. We had Bungie.net and we put up the Seventh Column which was a place that anybody who was a Bungie fan or Halo fan could go and essentially have a social networking site right there. So I could see the value of communicating with the hardcore fans or even fans that happen to want to ask questions about music and I started to value how easy it was to talk directly to the fans through things like that. So when Twitter came out I thought well, I don't know if it's any different but it's certainly easy. And it's just a really good way for me to talk to just say something simply or just point people some place and I know that several thousand people are going to get this little message right away and either respond or go read something or go listen to something and I get instant feedback. People will tell me if they like something or something's silly or whatever. It's actually just really neat to talk to people who actually do want to hear from you. I wouldn't say it's one way communication other than the fact that I don't necessarily follow everybody who follows me but I know people who are following me are interested in whatever's new in the Halo music universe. I can tell them about it right away and get instant feedback.

The Feed: So that said we've got a couple questions from some of our viewers of G4 and readers of The Feed that were sent to us via Twitter. Several people wanted to know was there a main influence behind the music of Halo: Reach?

Marty O’Donnell: I have purposely tried never to have a specific influence other than a lifetime of influences that I know is in my head already. So I never sit there and say this time I am going to listen to, Holst and copy The Planets or I'm going to listen to John Williams and copy Star Wars or Jaws or something.  As a matter of fact, I even tell the guys at the studio here when sometimes they do really early treatments of something and they'll pull movie music in from something and I'll say “no, no, no, no, don't even play it for me. Just take the music off and show me the cut you're doing.” But if I hear it there are only two things I can do. Either I am influenced by it or I'm purposely going to make sure I don't do anything close to it. And I don't think either of those responses are truthful as I want them to be. I want to be able to respond the way I would respond to something when I see it or play it and not be thinking, well, I don't want to sound like that, or geez, everybody really likes that piece that we used as a temp thing. So all that means is, as a composer and as an artist, I'm really trying to not specifically think about influences. I like to come up with something that feels original to me. And frankly, I just don't think that is really possible. I think anything you do you can hear the influences or you can probably hear the things that obviously have influenced me over my life but I try not to do a direct line to that influence.

E3 2010: Halo: Reach Firefight Hands-On Preview

The Feed: Another group of our readers wanted to know what was the most challenging game in the Halo series to compose for? Hind sight being 20/20.

Marty O’Donnell: Yeah, yeah, no one's asked me a question exactly like that. Halo 1 wasn't challenging it was just so exciting because really we were inventing new systems, and we were trying out new things and everything seemed new. So ever since Halo 1 everything has been a little bit more of a challenge simply because you have to think about how do you expand without copying and how do you not sound derivative and all that kind of stuff. I think just compositionally there was a pretty good challenge with ODST. I felt like I had to really take a right turn with that one and try to purposely stay away from, you know, the space opera epic feel that was pretty established with Halo 1, 2, and 3. And the idea of doing a film noir jazz score for a game I think was pretty challenging and it was pretty risky. The challenge with Reach, which was probably the second most challenging, is simply, how do I get back to the bigger more epic feel but add in or make it feel more somber or sacrificial than we’ve ever done before. And there was a few moments where I was doing some stuff that I thought, I don't think there is any place for this but I'm just going to keep working at it. I'm going to go with whatever idea this is and it showed up. It showed up in the game. I was happy to have that happen. Every game has its unique challenge. One of the things I tried to not think about too much was the fact that this is Bungie's last Halo game. That sort of started coming into my head when we were really finishing and I think that's a bitter sweet thing to do, but it didn't really affect the composition in any way.

The Feed: Let’s talk about that. So now that Halo is coming to a close for Bungie, are  there any musical worlds in Halo that you really wanted to try to explore but just didn't get a chance to?

Marty O’Donnell: That's a good question. If you listen to all the Halo music which would take you like a day (laughs) to get through all of it, there are example of lots of different things. There is good old rock and roll, we had Steve Vai playing, screaming eclectic guitar for me. We had techno, there's electronica, there's jazz, there's orchestral, there's choral, there's piano.  I really never felt like I was confined to a specific like genre or something. It's not so much about composing music that I want to compose as much as I want to compose music that supports the story and the game play. I felt like I've been pretty eclectic and lucky to touch upon lots of different fields and genres over the course of the last 10 years. I don't think I have anything unrequited. If it's the kind of music I like I probably did it at some point over the last 10 years. And if you didn't hear country western or Hawaiian music it's probably because I don't really like that music that much or certainly didn’t want to compose that way so. If it had been appropriate to have Hawaiian music in there, nothing against Hawaii, I would have done it. It's just not they way I am comfortable with.

The Feed: This is the last game. This is it for Bungie with Halo. Bittersweet? A little bit of sadness? This has been part of your life for the better part of a decade now.

Marty O’Donnell: I think some of the guys maybe feel a little more bittersweet about it maybe than I do. I know Mike Salvatori for example, he talked more about it than I did when he came up to work on this. He said “wow, I can't believe this is the last Halo game.” But he's not been working full time on this. I just pull him in at the last minute to do stuff with me. For me it's been a solid 11 years of working on one universe and one franchise and that's certainly way longer than any of us ever anticipated it would go, so on one hand I'm pretty happy to say that's good, let's hit the reset button and come up with a new thing and see what new directions we can go in. And that's a happy thing. It's kind of a release. On the other hand, when you look at what we've been able to do and it is a huge chunk of your life, there is a certain kind of “wow is this really the last time we're going to do that?” You know, could I do ever do monks again for anything without getting into some sort of “you're copying yourself?” It's funny because these iconic things we ended up doing over the last 10 years, I definitely have to sort of avoid doing that again. I'm excited about moving forward and you know going into entirely new directions. Then at the same time yeah, it's amazing to have had this journey and to see it come to an end.

The Feed: That begs the question of what's next for you? Will you be apart of Bungie's new project at Activision? Or will we maybe hear something from you before then?

Marty O’Donnell:
The plan as it exists today, but of course anything can happen, but the plan that I am excited about is that Bungie’s just moved from its old studio where we finished up Reach in Kirkland and we moved to brand new digs in Bellevue, Washington. And it really does feel like a fresh start. We have all new studios, all new workstations, everything is new. And we have a really tight crew of people who are working on the next big thing while we were finishing Reach. And all of Bungie is now focused on the next big thing. And the biggest, the most exciting thing for me is that we were able to figure out a way to get Bungie back from Microsoft. We were wholly purchased and our IP was purchased by Microsoft back in 2000. And we were able to earn that all back except that Microsoft retains the Halo intellectual property. But we were able to get Bungie back and come up with a brand new bunch of ideas and a new thing that we are going to be doing. And Activision, it's very exciting for us, they decided they would love to partner with us and publish our next big thing. And we have a long term contract with Activision and we're all ready to go.

The Feed:
As you said, Microsoft retains the IP for Halo. If it ever came up would you be interested in working on a Halo symphonic performance?

Marty O’Donnell: I totally would consider that. I love the music we've done for Halo. I love hearing it performed live. I'm not necessarily the kind of producer that knows how to put those kind of shows together but if somehow that was to happen and I could be involved in that and be a part of making something like that happen, I would love to do that. I would have no problem with that.

Interview with Bungie's Marty O'Donnell


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