Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Marty O'Donnell in Interview - Part 1

Marty O’Donnell is a man on the bleeding edge, being responsible for the music and audio vision for the stratospheric Halo trilogy from Bungie studios. I wanted to try and find out what this leader in the field of music and sound for games had to say about the subject and get some input for my then to be completed thesis. Around August of this year I embarked on a campaign of multiple emails to multiple addresses to somehow get in contact with Marty for an interview. After what seemed like a longer period than it probably was, finally in October a scant week before I had to hand in my thesis I spoke to the man himself via phone. Even though I approached him essentially out of the blue, Marty held no qualms about chewing my ear off for close to 90 minutes, to my own delight of course, and it is clear that music for videogames is a subject about which he is fiercely passionate.

In this, the first of a series which will include nearly the full transcript of our interview, I ask Marty about a few things to do with my thesis. Namely, what I identify as the inherent musicality of the sound effects of Halo 2, whether or not his unique role as audio director uniquely enabled that process to occur, and Marty elaborates on his own personal philosophy for music in games.

Ben: I’m doing a music degree, in my 4th year (honours), and writing a thesis that combines my love of music with my passion for videogames. So I wanted to look into what makes videogames unique and specifically the new ways that videogames can use music.

So, coming to the music of Halo, I started with this hunch that Halo did a bunch of interesting things with music, but I had no idea what it was… And while doing my analysis I came to realize that if I think about the music of Halo 2 as broader than just the composed music… I started noticing all this musicality within the ambient sound and the composed sound effects. That relationship between the music and sound effects is really interesting. It seems to me like there’s so much cross pollination between the music and the sound effects. The first thing that came to mind, or that inspired me to think about this was the covenant carbine & it’s scope zoom. It’s got this sort of low synthy, resonant note. And I though, hang on I can kinda pitch that, and it sounded like an interval of a perfect fourth going in and out. So do you think this is an accurate kind of assessment? Can you see the musicality in the sound effects?

Marty: The most general thing that we do is we try to make the basically human vehicles and weapons sounds actually sound close to what real world sounds might be and we tend to take the alien sounds and try to give them a little more… I guess you could say they were a bit more synthetic. We used more of our musical instruments to create the sounds of the aliens so that… that whole suite of sounds sits in a different place from the human sounds.

B: I think that’s really, really cool. So you just mentioned that was intentional, do you think that was helped by the fact that you were a composer and musician yourself, as well as the head guy in charge of sound? Do you think that would have happened if it was just some sound engineer in charge of the sound effects?

M: That’s an interesting question. I had a long career in music and sound design for movies and television & commercials so I was used to dealing with all those areas but when I was able to get into the game business it was much more wide open. I could be an audio director, which means I was able to say, ‘look, there should be nothing that ever comes out of speakers in these games that I didn’t approve or create’… that’s something you don’t necessarily get to do when you’re part of a team making a film or a commercial or a TV show or something… you’re a composer or sound designer or you’re a sound effects editor or a re-recording mixer – you have a lot of different roles and sometimes there’s no singular audio vision for the whole project and I was always hoping that was something I could do, and games gave me the opportunity to do that.

B: Is that a unique thing to games?

M: If you look for the term audio director in any movie you won’t find it… so it’s unique to games. And I am happy to say, I am probably a pioneer in that area.

B: I’d definitely agree with that assessment, yeah.

M: I mean I actually sorta insisted. I kinda made up the term and said ‘No I’m audio director’ and I told those young guys ‘here’s what that means: It means anything to do with audio comes through me’.

B: Sounds like a good approach, it’s definitely working.

M: Well thanks. *laughs*

B: If you were, say, trying to make a game like the Call of Duty games where they’re aiming for realism and that strict attention to detail do you think that you would be a bit more constricted?

M: In videogames and especially in the Halo audio engine…content is probably only half of what is important; the other half is how all the music and sound effects are manipulated in real time. So you can record the sound of a realistic engine but that doesn’t help make it seem real when someone’s actually driving it in a virtual world. You have to have a lot of different parameters you control to make it feel like the engine, or the sound of the suspension on the warthog, or the tyres or the gravel getting kicked up… all of those things can’t just be pre-rendered. You want to have good content to begin with but it has to be manipulated in real time. We’re using all sorts of real time parameter controls and digital signal processing that is controlled in real time to make it feel that it’s actually happening.

You have a little more latitude with weapons and vehicles that are alien because you’re not starting from something that you’re trying to recreate… like, the way a jeep sounds when it’s driving over sand. …The way an alien hovercraft sounds when it speeds past you – no one knows what that sounds like, you can make it up as you go along. And you can probably be a little more crazy with how the real time parameter controls actually manipulate the audio when it’s an alien weapon, or vehicle or sound effect. You can be a little more adventurous.

B: I found it really interesting reading a piece by Jim Rossignol that recently got reprinted recently on Rock, Paper, Shotgun. In it he mentioned the Multiwinia developers Introversion and how they were working on some animations that at first seemed somewhat so-so, but when they put sounds to it, it made the actual animations look better as well.

M: Right. And that’s one of the other things that’s actually interesting about games, and for the most part especially the Halo games, everything is virtual so we have no source to begin with… there’s not live action that we shot [to] listen to what we recorded and implement, everything is virtual. Character models, weapons, vehicles and you name it are all completely virtual so they have absolutely no sound. It’s like animation, there’s no sound at all, so in order to bring these things to life we have to do it in real-time.

B: There’s a guy who wrote a book called The Acoustic Ecology of the First Person Shooter, and he talks about how sound effects and the in game sounds that the player hears form an ecology, but he kind of writes off music from that relationship. Do you think the music, the linear compositions of music, can contribute to the ecology of sounds?

M: It’s probably somewhat difficult to disassemble [the music of] Halo just by playing it, but if you play sections over and over again… I would suggest actually recording the music you hear when you’re playing it, and then comparing the performance of the music back to each other, especially the in-game music. The reason I would suggest doing that, is ...I think you’ll be surprised at how much non linear-music is actually happening in Halo 2.

B: I guess the impression that you get if you just go straight through, and listen to all the CD’s you go “Oh yeah, it’s that song, it’s that song” and it’s sorta hard to pick out where it does change more than you think.

M: Just so you know, my own philosophy of how music works in games is that’s actually my ideal. I want people to play through a level or play through a game or play through a section or whatever and actually think that somehow the music just happened to be scored for their experience. And what they had was a linear experience because that is all you have – When you play a game you are having a linear experience, you’re playing for 10m you have a 10m experience. But if you play that 10m over again, believe it or not, the music will not play back the same way.

And that is all on purpose…I don’t want people to be aware that the music is actually adapting or interacting with their interaction, I want people to think that it’s just a linear piece of music that seemed to somehow fit what they were doing and they had a good experience. If they are aware that they are changing the music then I think I’ve failed.

B: Right. So you want to avoid what happens in some games, where you know you’re being attacked because the battle music has started.

M: Yeah, right. But it’s not just that… even when a piece of music starts, there are sections where the linear pieces of music that I basically reassemble in order to make a CD soundtrack out of it, but these things are not just disassembled and have stems… you know, you have a rhythm track or a pad and these things cross-fade or whatever, I actually have different sections of music that randomly fit together with each other and give you a different linear experience based on some random chance elements that happen. And I can weight the chance so that section D has only a 10% chance of playing. So you have at least a random playback of what is happening; then there will be more intense sections, or less intense sections, or things that overlay that only happen because of actions that you are doing. If you decide to speed through an area you’ll get a completely different piece of music that basically feels linear from beginning to end, but if you linger and do something different you’ll have a completely different musical experience. That’s actually something that I think is fun to do and to try to find those sections, and try to analyse how many different things are you hearing that are changing up.

In the next post our discussion moves onto granular music approaches in videogame music, why Marty has not been one to advocate a granular approach to videogame music, and what his own alternative approach is.


Daniel Golding said...

Wow. There are some amazing ideas there. Well done, Ben.

The idea of there being just one guy in charge of sound is a great one, and I'm surprised that film never really made it to that point. So much of what I hear about film audio production is the conflict between the music editor and the sound editor. Star Wars is a great example here, especially the latter two prequels where Ben Burtt got a lot more leverage than Ken Wannberg and as a result the music is completely drowned out for most of the film.

The idea of stemmed, procedurally generated music is also interesting. I remember the first game I played that didn't just play the same track over and over again - it was, surprisingly enough, 007: Nightfire on the 'Cube - and it was a revelation. So hopefully, to hear ever more complex and seemlessly reactive music in games will be even more so.

Can't wait for the rest of this series. One thing is for sure - I won't listen to Halo in the same way anymore.

Ben Abraham said...

You and me BOTH Dan, and if I can be blatantly self-promoting, the best is yet to come in this series.

Fashigady said...

Thanks for posting the transcript, Ben, its easier to read than listen to the full thing. Can't wait for the rest of the series, I remember it really got better as it went along ;)