Sound Byte: The Music and Sounds of Starcraft II

Russell Brower shares his thoughts on being an audio director for Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty.

by

One of the most highly anticipated games this year, Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty has finally reached our PCs. If you've ever had the slightest interest in getting into Starcraft or real-time strategy games in general, you probably should do so. Kevin VanOrd's thorough review below should help you decide, but I'll just sum it up for you now: Go get it. For those who have picked up a special collector's edition version of the game, you'll know that it comes with the soundtrack as well, which is definitely worth a listen. Given that players will be spending hours upon hours in the campaign or in multiplayer, the music and sound team needed to come up with tunes that not only fit the game, but also accompanied the game so that they didn't become distracting. I had the opportunity to speak with the audio director, Russell Brower, who shared his experience on composing and designing the right sound for Starcraft.

GameSpot: Thanks for meeting with us. Could you begin by telling us about your musical background?

Russell Brower: Yes, I am a lifelong lover of music that tells stories…so film scores and things like that. I'm mostly self-taught, however. Starting in high school, I did a lot of choral singing. I always say I learned most of what I know about music singing in choirs. I started working in the field right out of high school, and here I am. So it's all learning by doing.

GS: What were some of your earlier projects? Were you always working on video game music?

RB: I've had stints in the theme park industry…some television, and I have been working in games off and on my entire career. Especially in this decade, it really seized my interest. This was the ultimate blend of art and technology, which I really love.

GS: What musical instruments do you play?

RB: I play piano very badly. I'm very fortunate at Blizzard to be able to hire wonderful musicians that can play much better than I can. And I've learned to write music that I couldn't possibly play. But they can "bring it" as they say and make it sound really good.

GS: Do you have a favorite instrument?

RB: There are things about every instrument that I love. It's hard to say. I am partial to the French horn and the English horn, actually. You'll probably hear a few more solos for those instruments in my music than some of the others.

GS: So how did you get started in making music for video games?

RB: I have always been combining or graying the line actually between music composition and sound design, and I've done a lot of both in my career. So as I mentioned before…just like games to me are the ultimate marriage between art and technology, they're also a wonderful opportunity to find that gray area between sound design and music…and roam freely between the two.

GS: Could you tell us how you got involved with Blizzard?

RB: I heard about the position in 2005 early on. I had been a fan of Blizzard for a really long time. In fact, Diablo was the first Blizzard game I ever played, and I was struck with how the music in that game was iconic and not necessarily the type of music that I would have expected, but it totally worked. So I was always a Blizzard fan and kept my eye on the company. And I don't know if I ever consciously thought I might work here some day, but when the position came up. I went after it, and I'm very pleased to have landed it. So I just passed five years with the company.

GS: At Blizzard, are you assigned to work on specific titles or are you involved in all the projects that the company is working on?

RB: The sound department, of which counting me there's 16…we're a fairly small group. We work on everything at Blizzard that makes sound of any kind. So that includes the games, and the Web, the cinematics, the trailers, and what have you. So Starcraft II has been on my radar ever since I started here, and each game has had its time to kind of enter toward the home stretch. So it's been fun to pull Starcraft II from its early beginnings when I first started to completion in the last few months.

GS: As an audio director, what does your role entail?

RB: I think providing a sense of the big picture. I always like to be inspiring to the team from a standpoint of reminding everyone, "What happens from the moment you click on the application [and] start the game to when you leave and maybe put something else in the computer? Do you feel like you've had an epic entertaining experience?" In my position, I'm able to kind of zoom out and keep a sense of all three franchises and make sure each one has its own separate identity. I get my hands dirty as we might say…that I write music. There's so much more than just the music going on here. I suppose to borrow an analogy from someone else…it's like gathering pollen and going from one area of our discipline to another and making sure that everyone is talking to each other and the game developers. The focus is on continuity and consistency and excellence.

Part of being a hero is having your own theme song.

GS: How do you make sure that everyone in various groups on the team are on the same page to get the right sound and vibe for the game?

RB: We're all in close proximity, and an awful lot happens in the hallways. We do periodic team reviews where usually someone's at the helm playing the game and we're all gathered around. Or if it's Starcraft, there are four people in the match player and people are gathered around the different areas, and after the session, we sit down together in a big room and we try and see if we left any holes or if we've missed any opportunities. We try to get opinions because everyone sees it a little differently, and it's a really rich experience to get everyone's input on that.

GS: After working on World of Warcraft, what are the challenges when approaching Starcraft II?

RB: Part of it I touched on…make sure that as we work on all the franchises that we maintain their separate identities. Fortunately, the story and the characters of Starcraft II are very compelling and very rich, so it isn't hard to switch gears at all. We not only write different music and create entirely different sound design…sound effects for Starcraft II, we even record the sounds and music differently in different locales. It just has different sounds to them, so even the little things help maintain the identity of the franchise.

In Starcraft, we were looking for a more traditional epic film score sound, so we went to Skywalker sound and we recorded in the scoring stage there. It's one of the most wonderful rooms on the west coast. And that gave us a sound that was very different sound from World of Warcraft, which we tend to record in a very old, stone. It's somewhere inside between a chapel and a cathedral; it's a big old sounding space. It gives us a kind of bronze-age sound, if you will. So you can put the same size orchestra in each room, and it sounds completely different.

GS: You mentioned that you do write music as well. So how do you approach each piece?

RB: I surround myself with concept art early on…and the story. I read everything I can get my hands on, including all the Blizzard licensed books that are commercially available and works in progress that might be going on in the company from various writers. Once I can get into the game and I can actually play it or even roam around, I'll do that and take screenshots and just immerse myself in it. I do that for several weeks, and I find the longer I spend doing that before I start writing, I think the more my brain is subconsciously chewing on creative challenges and what not. Because when the time comes to actually write, we're usually toward the latter third of the game's development cycle, and the pace is picking up. We can't afford to go down too many blind alleys timewise.

GS: In terms of sound design, how did you approach Starcraft II to get the right sound for the game?

RB: Well, we built upon the soundscape that was established in Starcraft, so we do consider the sound for Starcraft II evolutionary rather than revolutionary. So that meant continued use of mechanical sounds. We recorded an endless number of small contraptions. There were large machines; there are sounds made from electronics and synthesizers; and of course with the zerg, there were a lot of fairly gross sounds that came from our various concoctions of flour, water, salt, and goop…and a lot of unmentionable stuff that made our studio a challenge to clean up afterward.

GS: There must have been a lot of squishy noises.

RB: Some vegetables were harmed in the making of Starcraft II.

GS: Now Starcraft II has that distinct space Western feel to it. Was there any influence from the television show Firefly or were the themes primarily based off the previous setting and story?

RB: The idea that the Terrans are in their off-hours…kind of space trucking cowboys…really started with Starcraft, which was what, 11, 12 years ago? I think there's just a vernacular forming around that concept, and we're following the path we started charting a long time ago.

GS: How do you approach individual themes for characters?

RB: It's contextual. I think one of the keys is to have a theme that is malleable that you can shape. I think the best thing I can give you is an example for Jim Raynor. When I sat down to write his theme, the first piece of cinematic footage I saw was where he became reunited with Tychus Findlay at the bar. And just given the nature of it…and they weren't quite sure what to make of each other after so many years, I went with a fairly traditional Western sound with a dobro and a harmonica. But I wanted the melody to be able to be reused later in another context, and so even though at the moment I was writing for dobro and harmonica, I was imagining in my mind what it would sound like if it were an orchestra. And so later, when the melodies become associated with Jim Raynor, and we're talking moments when maybe he's making a stirring a speech trying to engender hope and perseverance for the troops he's with, then the theme is being replayed now with an orchestra. And then I start pulling my favorite French horns out of the bag and having that melody soar in that way. And even though it's the same notes, it hits you at a different level. One of the best moments in recording Starcraft II was when we got to hear that. I've been insisting to the cinematic director that this was going to work for so long…that what they heard on harmonica was going to work in orchestra. When we finally got to hear it…you know once in awhile you get that moment when the hair stands up in the back of your neck and you know you've struck a chord…if you'll pardon the pun, it was a blast. I think flexibility, malleability…so that the melody can be associated with the character and follow them throughout their changes in fortune, and mood is very important I think.

Plenty of squishy noises going on during a zerg swarm.

GS: Do you have a favorite track in Starcraft II?

RB: It's hard to say. I'm partial to the main title because I had the opportunity toward the end of the project to take all the themes all the composers had written and bring them together in an overture kind of format. So we were able to say, this proves that all these separate themes can work together and be part of a consistent whole and become the sonic branding if you will of Starcraft II. I always say that our music and our sound should be as unique as the logo…to be unmistakable with the game that it goes with. So it's always fun to do those overtures where all the component parts come together in one piece of music.

GS: Thank you so much for your time Russell!

Sound Byte is GameSpot's game music blog, which covers every aspect of music in games, including interviews with top game music composers and discussions of new and classic game soundtracks. For previous blog posts, click here or the Sound Byte logo above. Have a question or suggestion? Leave us a comment below.

We'll have an update on the upcoming Xbox Live Arcade game Shank in the next Sound Byte so stay tuned!

Discussion

50 comments
TonnFool23
TonnFool23

@ Shawn45 So you won't buy this great muttiplayer game because they replaced Kerrigan's voice actor and the new sound isn't satisfying as the old SC?

Flinet91
Flinet91

This game was the best ive played in a while! Been playing it almost at any free time given to me. What i do miss is some of the soundtracks from the orignal game, but the music in this game still kicked it

Coal69
Coal69

to bad this game was not for xbox. because xbox is pretty amazing, and this game would help make halo reach look better

noobdawg123
noobdawg123

cbw1015, sometimes games do not need innovation to be great. SC1 was a game that maintained an enormous following for 11 years. If it isnt broken then dont try to fix it. Most companies that stray too far from their original product to be more "innovative" end up with bad sequels. Bungie comes to mind on this one... Besides the obvious imbalances the game has right now with terran being op, and of course the huge issues with Bnet 2.0 being garbage, the game itself is quite good and retains its competitive qualities. Fans of the series do not want something new and different. They like starcraft because it is starcraft and not something else.

sbdb
sbdb

Kevin VanOrd: "this game has something for everybody" Oh yeah, how about a skirmish with well balanced AI that doesn't need an internet connecting? Epic fail Kevin VanOrd.

swordaxe
swordaxe

I agree cbw1015. I actually hate Gamespot for reviews or even previews. I only come here to check out images and video for games I'm interested to buy. GS has the absolute worst reviews on the planet for video games.

cbw1015
cbw1015

Dear Gamespot, Please stop sucking Blizzards %#&! its getting rather old and rather obvious. This is not good to pat game companies on the back for a lack of innovation even if they are contributing money to the site via referral and pay per clicks. -your neighborhood gamers o.O

Oozyrat
Oozyrat

@Gelugon_baat - Yeah that was a cool video. I love watching how they make sounds and stuff in movies and video games. Republic Commando is one of my favorite games :D I love Sound Byte!

bschroth
bschroth

Cool interview. For me I'm enjoying the music, which is to say that I'm not sick of it after playing for tons of hours. I haven't noticed it that much though, probably because I haven't really had my speakers turned up very loud while playing.

valengar
valengar

Kind of tough to get over something as iconic as the original SC musics and themes. I honestly thought the effects and sound were pretty solid, but the memories and years of the original have me leaning to favor them. I can't hate just for nostalgic purposes, I think they did a good job.

ExperincedGamer
ExperincedGamer

the voice of Kerrigan in SC1 su%#ed ball%!!! and when i heard how many ppl liked it when it actualy sucked lol I was like WHOA!? o_O And from what I based on forums and internet and stuff ppl who cry about Voice Actor being changed are not so many its jsut ppl who DO cry cry like maniacs making 30 thousands mroe times more posts&comments and stuff then average dude!

DAOWAce
DAOWAce

@Shawn45: Well, finished the campaign. ..That's about all want to bother saying, as having some debate on an article only related in one way to SC2 is rather pointless. How do I feel? Well, I think it's time to go replay Starcraft and re-experience what the true Starcraft universe is like.

Gammet25
Gammet25

I reckon the Terran music sounded much nicer than the protoss or the zerg. The terran music u hear as u start a mulitplayer match makes u feel like u're right at home. :)

Skullcandy
Skullcandy

Zzzz...wait, what? Did I just sleep through the entire interview?

xodiac
xodiac

I thought the music in SC1 was better, like many others. I found that the music in SC2 was often self-obsessed and overdone. Almost any time there was chanting or other vocals it was just cheesy over the top in an attempt to be "movie-like". The multiplayer music is bland to blech, which is sad because I loved listening to all the music in SC1 despite years of playing it... hopefully they will revise the music for the expansions to make it tolerable/memorable.

julianozuca
julianozuca

Great interview. I really hope this blog doesn't die buried under other more popular features here at GS.

acasero44
acasero44

I still think SC1 had better music overall. Even though SC2 has some memorable ones, It does not have as many as in SC1. Despite having more themes than the original.

PewPewNinja
PewPewNinja

The music in SC2 is average at best,nothing memorable.The game itself is ok,if you didn't bought it yet wait for a price drop it doesn't worth 60+ (my opinion here,the game is basically warcraft 3 everything feel like warcraft 3 to me, at least the map editor is Good) ah yeah bnet 2.0 is not that great (more like crap,Chat gone,bad filter,no search?,popularity system ewww,and way more bad things,sure there are some good points but the bad one take all the place.) Overall Average Game with Average Music.

AncientDozer
AncientDozer

Actually, I'm with DAOWAce. The music was meh. I ended up turning it down and muting it all together to jam out to my own music. I liked TA's music the best. C&C 1 and 2 had some really great songs. The only one from Red Alert I can think of is Hell March but that's all you need. The music in SC1 was much better than this stuff. It was much less generic.

Marasca2
Marasca2

@DAOWAce i tought you were only complaining about the sound of the game, but now you come saying that the game has bad gameplay, UI and functionality? that proves you didn't play the game itself, you are just complaining about what you imagine it really is

rafaelburigo
rafaelburigo

SC II really has good music, but D2 is better. Matt Uelmem really can make the player drown in the world of Sanctuary.

blackfray
blackfray

The music is great and memorable, but I wished it would've been more symphonic and more epic.

Beltsu
Beltsu

Totally agree with Shawn45.

Spybreak
Spybreak

The sound and the music for SCII feels right and helps the scope of things. They did a great job and I liked that they used different environments to record stuff. That was one dynamic recording method our Sound Design Professor insisted we do. You can only do so much with filters.

s4dn3s5
s4dn3s5

Yeah, Kerrigan new voice isn't as good as the old one... and that's all, everything else is awesome, Zerg, Toss and Terran new tracks are very good. Some people just always have to whine about things, and since it's impossible to make everyone happy, we'll always have to deal with whiners.

DAOWAce
DAOWAce

Want opinions on the voice actor of Kerrigan? Here: www.petitiononline.com/sc2cast/petition.html www.escapistmagazine.com/forums/read/7.90423-Kerrigan-Voice-Actor-Dropped-From-StarCraft-2 www.escapistmagazine.com/forums/read/7.133088-Tricia-Helfer-Takes-Over-as-Kerrigan-in-StarCraft-2 (Check KazNecro's posts for the exact way I feel) Just search for things. Staying ignorant does nothing but show one's personality, and considering my comment's rating, there's a lot of those folk. Again, this is PART of a LARGE amount of complaints people have about the game. Not the ONLY one. I did however manage to archive 2 threads, but the design didn't save. www.daow.net/downloads/feel.html www.daow.net/downloads/feel2.html www.daow.net/downloads/whatswrong.html My posts (Blind.immortal) in the 'feel' thread explain things a lot better than I have in my gamespot comments. Voice actors, sound design, music design, art design, gameplay, UI and functionality. Those are shallow reasons? Suppose this is what I get when I give 'shallow' details because I assume people will understand my words and spend time thinking about all the reasons rather than just seeing one reason, shutting their brain off and going "omg u nub *assault*". Though, I admit I do expect people to have participated in the beta and seen the forums, so I'll take the blame for that. I intend to be sincere, but of course people see some form of hostility or arrogance in my words, possibly due to my rashness, which is not what I intend. It can't be helped.

DAOWAce
DAOWAce

@Shawn45: I have played the near finished product. I was in beta since it first came out. That is how Blizzard intended the game to be played, competitively. By your comment, you actually mean play the campaign, not the finished multiplayer, which I have. Sure, I'll play the campaign, but I'm not paying for it. This is the first Blizzard game I'm not going to buy, is that telling you anything? The music comparison was from memory, pardon me. But the fact still stands, WoW's all orchestral, Starcraft wasn't, now Starcraft 2 is, if only for a few tracks. It doesn't fit. That is my point. If someone cannot hear the WoWness of the OLD login screen of Starcraft 2, then they either haven't played WoW or just don't care whatsoever. I've been playing Blizzard games since The Lost Vikings. I believe I am completely qualified to judge a developer I've loved for the last 15 years of my life. It has nothing to do with the Activision merger, but Blizzard themselves as a developer. They've been falling for 2 years now and just keep sinking further. It sounds to me like you haven't had access to the beta forums since February. You haven't seen the complaints from hundreds, if not thousands, of other people that think the way I do. Shame they purged it. So many great threads are all gone now. As for the similarity to WoW, I said "to some extent", which apparently people can't grasp. Want proof of Diablo 3? Here: http://www.petitiononline.com/d3art/petition.html

remanufactureff
remanufactureff

yesterday I was drinking at cantina, when I heard the stooges play, I got wasted totally , went on battlefield , protoss kicked my ass haha . good stuff

downloadthefile
downloadthefile

I don't like the music so much but the sound fx are fantastic.

Pete5506
Pete5506

This game has great music, glad that they are doing this Sound Byte blog

don_dalati777
don_dalati777

enough with starcraft2 ....where tha hell is Diablo III??? SC2 still rules ;) ...( Shawn45 gr8 reply)

syam32245340
syam32245340

really like the idea when they have to be in a specific room such as cathedral to live the moment

Shawn45
Shawn45

@DAOWAce: That is a very shallow reason to not get SC2. The new voice actress isn't amazing, don't get me wrong, but she does a fine job in the role, especially considering she gets very few lines in the game. Furthermore, the theme of SC2 sounds NOTHING like the opening of WoW:BC, play them back to back again if you have to, because seriously, that is one of the worst comparisons someone has ever said on this site, it's similar to apples and oranges. SC2 doesn't look, feel, or sound anything like WoW. I know Blizzard hate has been cool ever since they got very successful with WoW, and especially after they merged with Activision, but if you're going to bash a title, have some REAL reasons, and if you haven't played the finished product, you have no say in how it plays.

Dezuria
Dezuria

I think the new Protoss and Zerg music is fine, but I'm disappointed with the Terran music. SC1 had much better Terran music, especially the new tune in Brood War, and the old Terran Theme 1.(youtube it!)

DAOWAce
DAOWAce

@jakeisstoked: I fully agree. I can only assume 'fanboy' type people have rated you down or people who've never played and loved the original Starcraft. Also, some of the music of SC2 sounds too much like World of Warcraft. That was the first thing I noticed when I started up the beta client months ago. Sounded like I just opened the WoW BC client. The whole vocal orchestra thing really doesn't fit the Starcraft universe. But I suppose that's what you get when most of the team who developed the old games leaves the company, including voice actors. So sad. I still haven't bought the game, and probably never will. My decision is mainly based on them replacing Kerrigan's voice actor, but I do have multiple other issues with the game as well. If anything, I'd rename the games to World of Diablo and World of Starcraft, because that's exactly how they look, sound and feel, all to some extent. Blizzard isn't the Blizzard we all knew and loved in the past. People should stop treating them as if they are.

shadowl
shadowl

Do they realize when they said that there is on;y one campain, that in fact there are going to be 2 more campains coming out. The next one is zerg then protoss.

mugupo
mugupo

Easily best pc soundtrack I ever heard, rival many console soundtrack. Excellent score nearly all track.

Sophia
Sophia

@jazilla glad you like it :)

jazilla
jazilla

that was great Sophia! Was really looking forward to this after your cameo on hotspot. Thanks for all the work on this thing. It's a really cool feature!

krholmes
krholmes

I must admit that some of the music sounds like it came from another RTS ..... Roller Coaster Tycoon 3. Anyone notice the similarity?

sleepingzzz
sleepingzzz

Sound and music was pretty forgettable. Didn't think it was bad, but it wasn't good enough for me to remember it.

jakeisstoked
jakeisstoked

I don't mean to say anything offensive, it's an awesome sequel and really does deserve all the 9+ ratings, but the sound design is downright awful compared to SC1. Someone needs to do an audio record of the same scene in both games. Take a few marines and get them to fend off some hatching zerglings. In SC you'll hear cracks and pops as they hatch, harsh slashes as they attack and scowls, hisses, and gurgling as the die running into the heavy sounding Terran rifles. While the marines scream in agony when they are taken down. It's glorious! Play out the same thing in SC2 and it's a bunch of weak puffs and squishes at best, with the marines' muffled weapons and occasional unimpressive moans when they die, it's worlds apart. Throw a few Goliaths in there and SC2 sounds even more unsatisfying by comparison. I know the sound is sonically much better quality, it's just horribly designed. Sorry, I'm a big fan of sound in games and to me adds a lot of enjoyment when done right. SC2 is just adequate.

LarkAnderson
LarkAnderson moderator staff

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