Interview with Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 Composer Brian Tyler

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Posted November 8, 2011 - By Rick Damigella

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Interview with Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 Composer, Brian Tyler

Activision not only deployed Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 today, it also released the original soundtrack album for the game, featuring music composed by Brian Tyler. While Tyler may be relatively new to the game music world, he has seen plenty of action on both the big and small screens, scoring films including The Expendables and Battle: Los Angeles, along with Star Trek: Enterprise. But it isn’t just his talent or his experience with war films that makes Brian Tyler uniquely experienced to take on one of the biggest game soundtracks of the year. Tyler is a gamer, specifically one who has logged many hours playing online multiplayer in the Modern Warfare series. The Feed spoke with Brian Tyler about the music he created for Modern Warfare 3, the soundtrack album and why multiplayer menu screen music is just as important as the interactive themes heard while playing the game.

The Feed: How did you get involved in working on Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3?

Brian Tyler: It came about through two different avenues kind of colliding in a way. One is that the guys that were working on the game and the guys that work in the music department were admirers of my scores and started suggesting why don't we talk to Brian Tyler, maybe he is interested in doing it. Well, at the same time I'm a huge Call of Duty fan and player. So once I heard about that I was like, absolutely I would love to do this. This is one of those cool moments in a composer's career where you get to dive into the world that you're fascinated with in the first place. So not only did I want to work on the game and really make sure that this music was great and bring something to the series from the perspective of someone that spent a lot of time in that world but also I just wanted to see and play the game before everyone else. So it kind of works in two ways for me.

The Feed: That's really good to hear! So are you a multiplayer guy or do you just focus on the campaign? Or is it a bit of both?

Brian Tyler: I do both. Multiplayer is something that you know, I've enjoyed it. In terms of first person shooters I go way back. I would do online Marathon wars with all my friends ya know? And then Unreal Tournament and then Halo and all the way through many others. I always loved going and doing the campaign first and I've always really liked how Call of Duty approaches it. It's just not a front for, “okay we have this multiplayer that's what everyone is really interested in but we have this campaign that you can take or leave.” It's not like that at all. It's an epic journey and it's always really cool and I love doing it then I get into multiplayer. And I can hold my own here and there (laughs).

The Feed: This is not your first foray into game soundtracks but it's got to be exceedingly different than for what you did for Lego Universe.

Brian Tyler: Yeah, I mean the tonality of Lego Universe and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 are so different and I loved working on Lego Universe. It was fantastic. And in terms of Call of Duty, musically it's a great canvas because not only do you have the intensity of really making the battle feel real, it’s that kind of music I imagine in my head when you go paintballing. That's the closest I can come to any type of adrenaline rush you can feel in a situation like that. So when you actually get in there and play any of the Modern Warfare series it just feels so intense and there is an emotional component to it that it has a basis in reality that is obviously different from something like Lego Universe which is pure fantasy.

So that has to be kept in mind when you're doing the music for something like Call of Duty.  It's epic and it's huge but there is also a sense of realism so that the tone of the music has to match that and enhance the overall vibe of what's going on. And in fact, at the Call of Duty XP event, it was kind of amazing to me where they set up one of the levels where you could go do it in paintball form. And the trippy thing is when I went out to do it, they kind of enhanced the moment by playing music from the game as you're playing and it's bizarre because I was out there playing and I knew the level from having played it, then I also hear my own music playing. It works in the game because it works in real life. Even though I did the music for it and I knew it really well I kind of almost forgot about it and it added to the experience when I was doing the paintball. So that was the moment where I thought, “You know what? I think we might have pulled this off!”

The Feed: You've got quite a bit of experience in scoring war-themed films from Rambo to The Expendables and Battle: Los Angeles. How did those prepare you for taking on Modern Warfare 3?

Interview with Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 Composer, Brian Tyler

Brian Tyler: It's a genre I love, war films, battle films and certainly there's an element to scores like Battle: Los Angeles, Rambo and The Expendables that you mentioned. But there are also these scores that I’ve done like Children of Dune and Partition and some other ones that have more of a world music vibe, which also informed the way I could approach Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 because this iteration has so much more of a world vibe since it takes place all around the world. And because of that the music really needed to reflect the area of which you are playing and where these battles happen. The adrenalized nature of battle is one thing; the high intensity, when it's really hitting the fan and you are in those situations where you're completely pinned down and a hail of gun-fire is over your head, the music is going to be reflecting that, but I think the thing people may not realize is the basis of scores like The Expendables, Rambo, Battle LA and of course Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, more than anything is the moments in between the hail of gunfire that are really important to make sure you feel intense as you are going into situations and that really sets up everything in a way that has a much bigger payoff when everything goes chaotic so you're not just playing chaos. The experience of working on those movies taught me you really have to concentrate on the parts in between the battles to make the battles even more intense.

The Feed: That's a fantastic way to look at it. What orchestra did you work with when performing the score?

Brian Tyler: The Slovak National Symphony. We recorded in a giant concert hall which was very cool, kind of a different approach than in a recording studio because it had this very live, big sound. There are a lot of scores these days that have a very studio, almost overly polished feel to them where the orchestra almost ends up sounding like samples, a synthesizer-style sound because all the rough edges get polished off and you're left with something very clean and pristine and recorded in layers. It almost ends up becoming a bit sanitized-sounding. So for MW3 I thought what we could do was almost treat it like a concert, where you have all the players playing at the same time. Live percussion from all over around the world, Africa, Asia, South America, you name it. Then you have this orchestra that has a lot of size, you have choir and you have it performed as much as possible at the same time and certainly the whole orchestra is interacting with each other, and actually perform it like they did for something like Star Wars, that score where it just feels so live and it’s not auto-tuned and corrected. So that’s really the philosophy behind recording the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 score.

The Feed:  We completely get where you're coming from with the live feel. Listening to the preview tracks, it really did feel very symphonic and we can easily imagine sitting in a theater and hearing this performed by a symphony orchestra.

Interview with Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 Composer, Brian Tyler

Brian Tyler: Absolutely! You're dead on with that. When you’re approaching something like this it presents challenges to say: “okay how do we do this? It's live with so many players” but the challenge brings a bit of ingenuity that you really have to think, be smart about how you compose it. The analogy to this would be something like CG in a film where it can be tempting because you can do anything with CG, is that you'll do too much on the screen and there will be stuff flying all over the place and if you paired it down and you worked under constraints like Star Wars the original trilogy, you're forced to kind of choose your battles and make sure whatever you do is just really, really focused. And so with the music it's almost the same way, the fact that, especially with a game where it’s inherently digital, I wanted to bring as much of the analog and the natural and the human as possible and so the soundtrack runs in that fashion, which is totally live. Down to even the drums that I'm playing and I'm playing the guitar and those things that go with the orchestra, it’s still all live music, it's not done in a computer so in a sense that maybe goes a long way to humanizing the experience especially when you are talking about a game.

The Feed: What were the challenges in creating the music for Modern Warfare 3?

Brian Tyler: The central challenge was to find scenes that had both that emotional component to it of the battle weary soldier going in and something that the melody and the theme could also be used for in a high energy intense situation. I wanted to keep a through line thematically in that classic score way instead of having one-off pieces that just would fit for one level then you go on and it doesn’t fit anymore. I wanted to tie the whole thing together. So you do have instances where you’re in all these different places and at the end of the day if there is a theme that can tie into all of those but be played in a way that is more true to that region then I think you can subconsciously tie it all together to the player a lot more so than if you had said, well here is our Russian music and it has nothing to do with when you’re in another country. So the idea was to have a theme that could work and be in many different iterations in many different ways so even when the game switches continents you have a through line and that was a huge challenge because you're talking about things, not to get too technical, but the harmony and the way the melody works with a harmony works differently in traditional Russian music than traditional English music.

So making that all work was a challenge but since I do score films mostly, every time I go to write a scene for some big action sequence or suspense sequence, every time I watch it, it's exactly the same. Where-as in something like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 you go in and every time it's played it's slightly different and I find instead of having a single director, I have millions of directors because really the  director of these scenes is the actual player which I haven't yet interacted with. So I'm kind of futuristically scoring these scenes to fit and work with however the director, being the player, is going to play the game and so the challenge being of course: to set up the music in a way that you can have so many different versions of a piece that will work no matter what player is playing it and depending on how that player plays any particular level. I made the music modular so it would change as the player changes. So, actually the music itself will sound different for every person that plays it depending how they play the game.

The Feed:  You work in the trinity of entertainment scoring, from television to the big screen to games. Which medium is harder? With film you’re scoring close to picture lock and TV is not too dissimilar but with a game how much do you really get to see the visuals in advance like that?

Brian Tyler: It’s a kind of race between the visual and the sound team on a game. In a sense it does happen on a movie as well if it's a movie that deals with a lot of effects. I’ve been conducting scores for films where there will be twenty seconds of blank and I remember even doing the Star Trek Enterprise series and seeing “Enterprise in battle” and that’s just words on the screen and “Enterprise blows up the Klingon ship” so on these films I do with a lot of effects of course they have missing elements. With something like a game you do end up having to score things in a way that is interactive. In other words, as I work on the music sometimes they'll (developers) say “oh, well okay we could do this with the level so maybe we can go in this direction” and we kind of affect each other. So it's an ongoing process, it's very collaborative. The game is very challenging because of what I was saying before which is the idea that it's not linear in a sense of a movie that's static every time you watch a scene in it. In the game it is different every single time you play it so the challenge of writing the music is one thing, that’s always the biggest, and coming up with themes that you think are great. Certainly as I am writing I always throw away a lot of music that no one will ever hear in my struggle to find just the right melody. That is something that is in common to both games and films but the game has the added complexity in the sense that it's a moving target.

The Feed:
And that is a perfect point where we can transition to talking about the album release, because you have all this music and the interactive nature of it. What goes into pairing all that material down to a listenable experience on a CD or download?

Interview with Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 Composer Brian Tyler

Brian Tyler: Well, for the soundtrack release I really pushed to have a more complete experience than perhaps we’ve seen before with the other releases. It’s probably twice as long as the last soundtrack and my reasoning behind that would be if you go on a journey as a player and you want to experience it from an impressionistic kind of way, like driving in your car or going to the gym or you’ve got your iPod on, people want to re-experience the game because you love playing the game and it's something that actually can over the years provide nostalgia as well. When I hear music, sometimes even sounds from a game that I played 10 or 12 years ago, it instantly brings me back even if I don’t play that game anymore. I feel like this responsibility to the fans of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 to provide as much as I can and to give as much of a representative experience from what they already experienced in the game to be on the soundtrack.

So it is a challenge to distill everything into a soundtrack that conveys that but I think it's certainly possible. Not only am I someone that works on the game but since I am also a fan, I wanted to see if there was a way to do it that if I popped it in, that I would be able to re-experience all the different aspects of the game, so it's not just the thematic parts and it's not just the action parts but it kind of gives you everything from starting the mission and making the entire soundtrack like a journey, so you're starting a mission, you're going into one area and you do your thing and it's really intense. You pop in the soundtrack and you get the feeling that you are going in and out of these missions and getting the full experience emotionally that you had when you played the game. So that’s really the goal of it.

The Feed:  Let's talk about being a fan of the series. Was that a help to you in creating the music? Do you think that helped you up your game in terms of what you created for Modern Warfare 3?

Brian Tyler:
Definitely. Walking into the universe of Call of Duty as a creator now, of part of the legacy of the series, was helped tremendously by me having that built in knowledge of what is going on with the Call of Duty world. The tone of it is very specific like Modern Warfare vs. the original Call of Duty, the idea that you are in a modern warfare situation is very different than your traditional army-type style music which I have done a lot of. I already knew the tone going into it, what the vibe should be. There is a vibe of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare that any player that plays it knows what it is. It's this intangible thing that is related to it and I really wanted to nail that. I felt that with music as great as it can be for games, often a lot of the times I think the composer doesn't necessarily get the world that they are actually scoring and maybe treats it like a movie and it is different. You don't write the same way if you're used to knowing what all the ins and outs of the game are. So for me I relied on it heavily, just having the weapons in your hands and knowing the strategy and knowing the gravity of it developed over the last two Modern Warfare games. So for the third we definitely wanted to up the ante but that knowledge from me playing helped a lot.

The Feed: 
For those of us who spend countless hours playing multiplayer, we will spend a good amount of time hanging out in menu screens waiting you know for matches to fill with players. Usually we will get to hear little pieces of themes in those rooms, so we will get that as well right?

Interview with Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 Composer Brian Tyler

Brian Tyler: Oh yes, yes. In fact that kind of connects what you last asked me. One of the things in any game that you know as a gamer, you really actually remember all the menu screen music.

The Feed:
Yes you do.

Brian Tyler: Because you know you do hang out there for awhile. So I wanted to make sure that stuff was actually tailored to it and it wasn't just an after thought. Actually the idea to me is if you're in those rooms, on a waiting screen, waiting to go into a mission or battle especially with multiplayer... the music to me should be actually that kind of preparation music that you have before a battle. This is the origins of what I would call scoring in a way. The original emotional driven scores are things like battle drums. This goes back thousands of years. Battle drums, they’d actually take certain people, guys that would normally be out there as soldiers and remove them from the infantry and put them into a drum line in order to pump up the guys for the battle while you're waiting and while you're approaching, walking towards the battle. (Brian makes a drum sound with his mouth) You would hear drums and things like this. The only reason you would actually take weapons out of their hands and give them drums would be because the sum total of what it's going to do is pump up the infantry so much more that it's worth sacrificing not having some extra soldiers. And this goes for bagpipes, that's what those were for in Scotland. You would go in to battle and hear bagpipes coming over the hill and it would pump you up. So the idea for me was waiting in one of these rooms, instead of making it just an experience where you're ticking the time away that it would actually emotionally prepare you for battle, so by the time you got into the actual level, depending on what you're going to do, you were just ready to rock.

The Feed: We like to end interviews with video game music composers by asking, what is your “Dream Score?” But this sounds like Modern Warfare 3 was your dream score. So now that you've achieved this, what's next? What would be the next dream score that you would want to try and achieve?

Brian Tyler:
Yeah, that's a tough one after this experience. I feel very fortunate. But certainly, a dream score can be anything along the lines of maybe some kind of historical drama that’s about somebody in history that had a huge impact on humanity, that would be such a heavy and important task and I think it would be quite a challenge to do something like that. But certainly for now I can hardly think past Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, you know?

The Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 soundtrack album is available now from both Amazon MP3 and iTunes.

Did you enjoy this interview? Follow me on Twitter, as I will sometimes invite The Feed's readers to submit questions for interviews with game music composers.

Interview with Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 Composer Brian Tyler


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