Sound Byte: Meet the Composer – Jack Wall

We talk to the legendary composer about his recent stint with Call of Duty: Black Ops II.

Composer Jack Wall certainly has an impressive resume. In addition to composing music for the Myst and Mass Effect series, he is also the co-founder of the Video Games Live concert series. Most recently, Wall worked on Call of Duty: Black Ops II. We chatted with Wall recently to discuss his past, present, and future projects.

How did you get your start in the game music-making field?

I started working in games in 1996 with a company called Postlinear Entertainment; great name for a game company. They gave me my start by asking me to work on their first three or four titles. I was fairly close to the people there and learned a lot about making games and got the opportunity to experiment quite a bit with different techniques for making the interactivity work with music.

For years, especially in the early to mid-2000s, there seemed to be a big push from many in the industry to have the music change based on what the player did, but I didn’t see it that way. I always felt that music should fit the mood of what the player was feeling rather than fit their specific actions. Of course, that largely depends on what type of game it is, but for the more story-based games I was working on, that worked better than say, having the music change simply because the guy is walking up the hill as opposed to going down it.

You won your first award for the OST of Myst III: Exile. Tell us one or two things about the development of the game's music that you haven't shared before.

I think the reaction of the production team to our scoring the Main Theme from Myst III: Exile was pretty special. They heard it and were blown away. Of course, they were at the recording session and witnessed it. I remember coming down from the podium after we recorded that particular piece and the producers and developers walked into the room with these huge smiles.

They were clearly moved by the experience of watching all of the players perform it. The team had heard the piece mocked up with orchestra samples, but listening to the real thing changed them and their perception of the music fundamentally from that day on. I wish everyone could experience that.

You also won awards for your work on Jade Empire and Mass Effect's score. Would it be safe to say that composing vast tunes for large-scale adventures is your specialty?

I really don’t know what my specialty is other than helping to tell a story through music. I push myself to try new things whenever opportunities arise. When I did Jade Empire, I’d never done anything like it. Mass Effect was the same. Call of Duty: Black Ops II is again brand new territory for me. I’m very experienced at producing music. I always feel that writing music for a new game, film or album is a new challenge every time. The palette I choose and the way I get it all done seems to vary with each project. That’s how I endeavor to keep it fresh.

What made you pick Call of Duty: Black Ops 2? Was this sort of a throwback to your days when working on Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow's music?

I had the privilege of auditioning for Call of Duty: Black Ops II. It wasn’t something I was actively seeking. I don’t think you pick your projects so much as you take advantage of some opportunities that come into your sphere. Brian Tuey, the audio director at Treyarch, was a fan of the Mass Effect scores I’d done and asked me if I’d like to audition. They told me they were looking for a fresh approach to Call of Duty.

This was to be the ninth game in the series. That’s an amazing run by any standard. To Treyarch’s credit, they endeavored from the start to outdo themselves in every discipline necessary to make a great game. They seemed to respond well to my ideas so I got the job. Splinter Cell Pandora Tomorrow was a totally different experience. I really believe that every project is completely different.

The only mainstay is that melody is important, yet really hard to do well in games. You need to pick your spots for it and they need to be both important to the story, and they need to occur in areas or moments in the game where you can let the music take over. It’s always an important challenge for me to find those spots.

What was the inspiration for Black Ops 2's music?

The first thing I did was play through Black Ops and make my notes on what worked well. The Black Ops wing of Call of Duty, at the time, was the biggest selling game in game history. I didn’t want to fix what wasn’t broken. There was a certain kind of darkness to that score that worked well and we needed to retain that.

However, the mandate from Treyarch on Black Ops II was that the story and characters in the single player campaign needed to be much more memorable. Music was to help in that regard as much as possible. The inspiration for me came from the script in the single player campaign and watching a lot of the gameplay portions.

What were the primary tools used for composing Black Ops 2's music?

Brian Tuey and I came up with a music design that had a more orchestral and acoustic palette in the 1980s era of the game and then a more electronic hybrid for the 2025 levels of the game. I also felt that an intimacy to the score could be achieved with solo instruments and vocals. My assistant and I created a library of sounds that I could use in Black Ops II. We did a few days of field recordings and then designed some banks of sounds in Battery 3 that I could load in my Black Ops II template for the project.

Concerning the theme of the heroes and villain, could you take us through a step-by-step process on how you came up with them?

"The Hero’s Theme" was born when I was scoring a scene where Anderson rescues David Mason and his group in Los Angeles in 2025. I wrote it and the team really loved it. I began using it whenever the team resolves a big part of the story including the scene at the very end of the game when Woods and David Mason are at a grave site.

For the main villain Raul Menendez, his theme was written specifically to demonstrate that he was a multi-faceted antagonist of the story in the single player campaign; not a one-dimensional bad guy. There was a scene in the script where he was sitting on a bed with his sister who was obviously infirm or sick. I imagined that he was singing a traditional Nicaraguan lullaby to her--something that their mother sang to them before she died.

I researched Nicaraguan lullabies and found “Niño Precioso”. I rearranged that song to work as a theme of sorts for Raul Menendez. It appears in numerous places in the score including the opening fight in Angola, Guerra Precioso on the USS Barack Obama and several other places. I also recorded a purely orchestral version of it with a vocalist, Rudy Cardenas for the credit roll in the style of Michel Legrand in a ‘70s film.

Do you believe that music in military-themed first person shooters can go beyond orchestras? Or do you think that it's a genre staple?

I think you have to use what works for the project you are on. The orchestra gets used a lot because it’s such a versatile sound. You can get a tremendous amount of variation in performance and orchestration; the possibilities are almost endless. But I really enjoy mixing the live orchestra with synth and other solo elements to create a more intimate or electronic sound.

It really just depends on the cue I’m writing at any particular point. I also get a lot of inspiration by creating sounds from found objects. That is something I want to do more of as time goes on. But mixing all of that with an orchestra can certainly move your emotions. That is what music does, so any way I can get that I will. I know that some people just don’t like that sound happening all the time, and I quite agree with that. You have to use it properly. All this said, I think that you can do a lot of great music without an orchestra as well.

I understand that you will be composing Lost Planet 3's music. What can gamers expect in that game's OST?

Yes, I’m very excited by that game as well. About 50 percent of the score I call “country, alien twang”. It goes really well with the story while at the same time making the sci-fi setting more accessible and believable. We’re just wrapping this one up and I can’t wait to see what gamers will think of it. It’s quite a departure from the first two games and I think it’s going to do really well. The acting, the story, and the plot lines are great. The game is fun and if I can get into the studio with some great musicians and bang out tunes that are "alien twang", I’m all for it any day.

Say you were assigned to work on a Japanese-made franchise (Dark Souls, Final Fantasy, etc.). Which series would you like to work on?

Well actually I haven’t played many Japanese games, but I’m certainly familiar with a lot of the music. I know that there are some truly artistic and wonderful titles out there. I’d just do what I always do. I’d do a deep study of what came before and try to bring my voice and my point of view to the franchise. That is what is most fulfilling to me as an artist. I always figure that the best way to do my job is to bring my particular point of view to the party.

Got a news tip or want to contact us directly? Email news@gamespot.com

Did you enjoy this article?

Sign In to Upvote

2 comments
Dredcrumb9
Dredcrumb9

I just finished Black ops 2 for the 2nd time on veteran and it was too easy. I am now playing Black Ops 1 campaign again on Vet and I am finding it has more challenge, better graphics, and the shooting feels far better without the stupid X hitmarkers showing up on screen.  I also noticed more gore in Black ops 1. The rockets make a mess of enemies everytime in Black Ops1 campaign, where in BO2 they fall over without a mark. Anyone who has not played Black Op 1, and is planning on starting with B02, get Black Ops 1 instead.

greatersphere
greatersphere

Find the pic prtty funny though, nicely timed too

quantumtheo
quantumtheo

Just keep using that stupid screenshot gamespot... so freaking stupid, picture makes me cringe and NOT want to come to this site anymore.

1nUrFac3
1nUrFac3

GS should change the BO2 screenshot on top sometime. It's always the same when BO2 is a topic and u c a black person gettin meleed...

mkdoomfan2
mkdoomfan2

I'm guessing that you guys are not actually going to talk about the article.

lina_baby_doll
lina_baby_doll

Hey what about replacing that soldier with Bob Kotick's face?

WWE6427
WWE6427

Gamespot staff just loves that pic with the black guy getting his head cut off. they use it for almost every cod black ops article.

brok
brok

Can we PLEASE get a new screenshot to use for Blops 2 news? I'm sick of seeing that poor sod get chopped in the neck with the stupidest most overblown reaction in the world on his face. Ah- I see I'm not the only one who's noticed...

ABakedAlien
ABakedAlien

Our top story tonight: "Is Gamespot racist against blacks?" Stay tuned, with more at 11.

Kaine852
Kaine852

I see that thumbnail in gamespot as much as I see that user with the pink haired anime avatar comment on certain articles XD

garysingh34
garysingh34

They've used that thumbnail picture again! WTF?!

mkdoomfan2
mkdoomfan2

I liked the music in this game, but I don't think it was all that memorable. I mean it's got its good parts, but for the most part I forget about it when I'm finished with the level. I think the music from MW2 was a lot more memorable in my opinion.

luis4800
luis4800

The f*ing screenshot is annoying as hell, All I could picture is Kanye singing. Stop chopping a brother's head off.

Heirren
Heirren

I bought Black Ops 2--the first COD game I've ever bought. It is one of the worst game I've played in the last 20 years.

greenbnut
greenbnut

Seriously, Change the damn picture!

dominoodle
dominoodle

Why do they have to use that screenshot for every CoD article? =/

flameon12346
flameon12346

I do like the Hero's Theme song. But my favorite part was at 1.00 to 1.08 when it started to reach the end. But the Anthem (Excerpt) one sounded egypt. I only read like half way through the artical hahaha.

KDogKool
KDogKool

Gamespot is in love with the black guy getting his neck machete'd 

quantumtheo
quantumtheo

Really glad to see I'm not the only one sick of that stupid offensive picture.

1nUrFac3
1nUrFac3

 @WWE6427 didn't c ur post, but funny ppl think the same way. Seems GS r the only 1s not noticing it...

Jago-Vs-Fulgore
Jago-Vs-Fulgore

 @ABakedAlien 

Thats what i've been wondering too. They've used that thumbnail like 100 times already. Someone loves the idea of chopping a black mans head off apparently. 

ZeroDivision
ZeroDivision

 @Techn1c4l I was about to type that but decided to scroll down and look for it instead lol

rayven1lk
rayven1lk

 @mkdoomfan2 The Reznov and Colossus themes were sick, Those were the most memorable parts of the campaign for me

luis4800
luis4800

 @Heirren Everyone got trolled with the campaign, I was lmao at the end of the campaign. COD is meant to be played for multiplayer, which is ridiculously fun and addicting. DIAMOND CAMO FTW!!!

catsimboy
catsimboy

 @KDogKool

 Can it be an image meme? Like line A says something that would make somebody surprised then line B is about how that knowledge is pointless now that he has a knife in his neck. Example: Just learned he can save %15 or more by switching to Geico. Too dead to take advantage of savings.

ABakedAlien
ABakedAlien

 @Jago-Vs-Fulgore 

True. But my comment was more of a joke. If the guy was any other race I'm sure they would of still used it. It is a funny picture, but the guy just so happens to be black. Its actually racist in a way to declare racism only because he's black. If he was any other race or color there would be no comments on his race I bet. Unfortunately the word "Black" and "Racism" go together like a Wii U and a trash can.

wavelength121
wavelength121

@ABakedAlien But it's not any other race. It's a black man getting his head chopped off.

Also, why would you buy a Wii U just to throw it away? Are you some sort of moron that you throw away your own cash?