This guy has a background solid enough to allow him jumping onto ethnic/organic sounds for a FPS soundtrack AND still being successful. Awesome interview.
The composer of SOCOM 4 goes in depth about his work, his background, and the future of the video game music industry.
GS: So for SOCOM 4, what was that experience like?
BM: It was challenging at first because I had reservations about doing a big symphonic military-sounding score, not because it would be inappropriate, but because it just wasn't something that interested me creatively. But I met with the developer and with Sony and realized that they wanted something different with this score. They wanted it to feel more exotic; they wanted it to really evoke the location of the game setting, which takes place in Southeast Asia; and they wanted something that was a little more nuanced, and this was really exciting to me because we're in this place in the game where big orchestral fanfare… In fact, we scored the game with a live orchestra at Skywalker Ranch in Northern California, but the orchestra is not the primary focus of the music. The primary focus of the music is actually the Southeast Asian instrumentation, such as the gamelan orchestra. You hear taiko drums, you hear the shamisen, the biwa, the koto, bansuri, shakuhachi, just a wide array of instrumentation that has a really distinct Asian sound. And that was really exciting to me. When we were first meeting and discussing ideas, this idea of taking a franchise that is known for its military bombast and really reducing it down to this exotic and ethnic instrumentation but still having moments of orchestral light. That was really interesting to me that was something I knew I could explore.
GS: In first-person shooters, there's a lot of noise going on while you play. How do find that balance where your music doesn't get drowned out or the music is not too in your face?
BM: My approach is to focus on the narrative and story elements. When we were looking at the single-player campaign, we were thinking about the story being told as a whole. So one of the things that I think gamers are going to notice subconsciously is that as they play through this brief campaign, the perspective of the main character has changes, and his attitude changes, and as new revelations come up, it changes the decisions that he makes. The music is informing us about what he is thinking. The music in the first mission has a different emotional character than the music in the second, third, fourth, and by the time you get to the end, those missions have a different emotional quality, and what I think is exciting is being able to tell a story even while you are playing with combat music--there's a story happening. The other approach that we did is the placement of music is very subtle; there are long stretches where you don't hear any music. Music will come in and disappear in very elegant ways. So what that does is that it makes the music more effective because you don't hear it all the time. If music is constantly droning, then the other way to draw attention to it is to make it louder or more energetic. When you pull back the reins and you let there be moments without music, suddenly the most subtle musical phrase has a huge impact.
For example, in some of the early missions you are sneaking through territory held by local guerrilla insurgents, and as you're sneaking through the leaves, sometimes there will be no music at all. And then just a very subtle solo shamisen or a gamelan orchestra line will just come up out of the ether and then disappear. And I've found that as a gamer, as I've been playing through this game, that raises attention. Because it's just a subtle quiet little sound that becomes terrifying in a way, and I found that that was a really smart idea of developers to focus on the silence to let the music say more by saying less, and I was thrilled how well that turned out.
GS: How do you approach individual tracks when writing character themes or action sequences?
BM: For me it's all about the character theme. The very first thing I try to do is decide which characters are the prominent characters, what style of music or mood of music would represent them, and then I write thematic material that doesn't necessarily belong in the game in any specific place. I just write a theme that captures the mood of the main character or enemy forces. In the case of SOCOM 4, for a good chunk of the game your enemy forces are the local insurgent fighters, and that's where a lot of the ethnic instrumentation comes in. They have a very acoustic, natural organic sound. Later in the game you fight a more high-tech military force, and electronics comes in, and the sound of the music actually changes to reflect the enemy that you're fighting. Once I have all that material, I have an instrumentation that represents different characters. I have themes. I know the style that I'm writing in. At that point it's like putting together a puzzle. As I'm writing an action cue, I will draw from the instrumentation and themes that are appropriate for the given scenario. So to answer your question, I'm never just writing action music. There's not a single cue in SOCOM 4 that is sort of a generic action piece, it also tells something about who Ops Com is fighting and who he's fighting and what his mind-set is while he's fighting. To me that's really inspiring, helping to tell the story. And of course a lot of the music is reconfigured for the multiplayer. It becomes a little more complex. The story doesn't matter as much as the visceral experience, but a lot of those thematic instrumentation elements still apply in the multiplayer game.
GS: I've read that your music won't be heard twice throughout the game and that it never loops. How do you make this happen? That's a lot of music to write.
BM: It is. It is a lot of music to write. The single-player campaign in SOCOM 4 lasts approximately six to eight hours, and I delivered nine hours of original music for it. Beyond that, those nine hours of score were delivered in such a way that altered variations could easily be created that would generate 20, 30, 40 hours of variations if it became necessary. And a lot of the things that we were doing were challenges that I think games developers have been dealing with, certainly since the early '90s, when recorded audio really became a factor in video games. And I found that in my first meetings with Zipper and Sony, I started asking them questions. Can we do this? Can we do that? These were ideas that I've had ever since I was a kid daydreaming about what video game music could be. And the short answer to all of my questions was, "No." But then I found that the developers said, "We'll get back to you." And they found a way on the technological side to accommodate me. So in many ways I think we're doing things in SOCOM 4 that probably have not been done before, and when you play SOCOM 4, there's fluid and naturally evolving sound. Frankly, it's very subtle. I don't think most gamers will notice. All they will notice is that the tension heightens and they're not sure why. But if you really pay attention--and I've been playing through the final product myself, paying very close attention to what the music was doing--it never repeats. Even if you die and go back to the exact same section that you were just in, the music is different. Not so radically different than just sounds like a random piece of music--it still has the same tension, same mood, or same theme--but it's performed on a different instrument or a different tempo or a slightly different mood. To me, that's a real achievement on the audio development side, and my hat goes off to the guys and gals who pulled that off. What I did is just provide the material, provide the musical and emotional building blocks, and then they had to incorporate and implement it into this game in such a groundbreaking way.
I didn't know he worked on The Walking Dead and the Terminator TV series, too. He's worked on the shows that are in my top 5!
I fracking love Bear McCreary... He is one of the few unique gems in Hollywood these days. He stays amazingly grounded and humble as well. I have all the Battlestar soundtracks, which at least to me, is the greatest set of overall music ever produced for a T.V. Show. Listening to the Socom 4 music.... It's near impossible for me to hear those Taiko drums and not think of his Battlestar soundtrack... I look forward to anything this man puts out. You can tell that he gets emotionally invested in anything he produces and it comes across in his music. I remember sitting around when I was young imagining what my Zelda game or Mario/Sonic themes would sound like orchestrated. He has said he did a similar thing when he was younger and applied that when he was doing Dark Void. That's an amazing amount of imagination and creativity. I'm glad that we as gaming and movie fans have someone like Bear, who is just as big of a fan as he is a creator of new and interesting film and gaming music....
I have to say, I'm actually a fan of more "orchestral" soundtracks for video games if just because I like baroque/classical/romantic music and in the weirdest way, some of that music is a modern equivalent to that. Is there modern orchestral music? Yes, but most of it is either derivative crap or just plain awful. McCreary definitely deviates from the orchestral structure of the now, but I still really his style and there's a lot to like about it. Some of those samples were a little inconsistent in themselves, sure, but he does a fantastic job of creating a strong tempo for the music, giving it a lot of body and though it does vary a lot, those variations tend to be really organic. I really expected to hate his music at first, but he sure showed me. He has that Danny Elfman vibe of creating very original music with strong fundamentals. Also, "organic" is such an overused word, even if it does fit in this context.
I for one am glad that Elmer took a dude named Bear under his wing. Thanks for the good read Sophia :)
Good interview. Mr. McCreary is a good composer. I really enjoyed the music he wrote for BSG, The Walking Dead, and DV. And I find it amazing that he wrote over 9 hours of music for SOCOM 4! That's a hell of a lot of music to write for one story.
Totally agreed that video games have gotten away from melodic/theme based sound tracks. Which sucks. Big orchestral scores are just lush crap.
Nice interview! Lots of content :D I gotta say, Bear McCreary is a pretty cool composer... I really liked BSG's score, and SOCOM 4's doesn't sound half bad either.