Sound Byte: Meet the Composer - Bear McCreary
The composer of SOCOM 4 goes in depth about his work, his background, and the future of the video game music industry.
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Composing the music for the hit television series Battlestar Galactica is not a bad way to start a career. Bear McCreary has worked on several high-profile projects, including the television series The Walking Dead and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and in the video game world he's known as the composer behind Dark Void and SOCOM 4. When playing a shooter, chances are you are not focusing on the music, but if you take the time to listen to the soundtrack of SOCOM 4, you'll find that it's worth stopping to take notice of. I have some samples embedded in the interview below, so as always, enjoy and please leave your feedback!
GameSpot: Could you tell us a bit about yourself and your musical background?
Bear McCreary: I grew up in the Pacific Northwest playing 8-bit video games and going to see big summer movies. And the whole time, I was listening to the music in both of these mediums, and music was always my passion, and I wanted to combine all these things. I started studying film music very seriously when I was in middle school, and by high school I was writing music all day every day. I was taking piano lessons and playing in rock bands, but basically my focus was classical film music and orchestral music and learning how that kind of music worked. I moved to LA to go to school and got my training at the University of Southern California, but prior to that, I actually met film composer Elmer Bernstein, who is one of the legends of the business, and he kind of took me under his wing, and I was his final protege for several years, so even during my time at USC, I was studying with and working for him and really learning the tools of the trade in the film music business for him. Shortly after graduating, within a year of graduating from USC, I began work as an assistant on a movie called Battlestar Galactica, which was a four-hour miniseries that the Syfy channel made. And when that was expanded into a regular series, I was given a shot at being the composer, and the rest is history.
GS: What was the first instrument that you picked up?
BM: Piano. I studied piano about 11 or 12 years, but I never really got very good. I was always good. But I never really liked to practice, like scales and things like that. I only wanted to play music that I really liked. So I was playing movie themes that I would hear in the movie theatre. I'd come home and figure them out on the piano just to elaborate on them and dream about writing my own. When I was 19, I got an accordion and actually became really good at it and started to actually practice that and over the course of a couple of years got pretty good at the accordion.
GS: Is there an instrument you wish you knew how to play?
BM: Oh I don't know. I wished I had picked up some stringed instrument. I know that the piano is technically a type of string instrument, but a string instrument where your fingers are touching string. Because I feel like, without having that experience on guitar, violin, or cello it's really difficult for me to learn how to play those instruments. With that said, over the course of studying and writing music I've become very good at understanding how those instruments work, and I'm very good at writing music that naturally fits all those instruments, but that's different than being able to pick one up and perform it.
GS: So how did you get into making music for video games?
BM: I had already been established as a composer in television and films, and I was approached by Capcom to do a game called Dark Void, and they wanted a big, epic, swashbuckling science fiction score that would feel very cinematic and exotic. I was thrilled to be brought on board and just had an incredible experience working on that game. The soundtrack of that game is still I think one of the most epic pieces of music I have ever written. But that sort of opened the door for me to get involved with the gaming industry, and simultaneously between that game I also produced a score for a spin-off called Dark Void Zero, which was an entirely 8-bit game. So simultaneously I am producing a full orchestral symphonic score and a combat '80s 8-bit score. So I really felt that launched me into the video game industry, because I was helping move music forward and looking back and acknowledging where it came from at the same time, both within one project, which was very exciting.
GS: How is it different composing for film and TV?
BM: It's not very different at all really. Technicalities with scoring a game are different. You're obviously writing a lot of music that is not through picture, but ultimately to me it's no different because you're still telling a story. I think about character themes, I think about the big picture, the narrative arc, where is the story going, how do I want the gamer or the audience to feel. But ultimately, that's the exact same thing, right? I mean, the music is designed to create an emotional response. So whether that emotional response is from someone holding a controller or from someone in a theater or a living room watching, that doesn't change at all. I'm still creating very emotional music, so in many ways, there's almost no difference in terms of my creating approach.
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.
GS: While playing through SOCOM 4, one of our editors noticed some 8-bit music in there. How did you sneak that into the soundtrack?
BM: Funnily enough, I didn't sneak it on to the soundtrack at all. But the developers snuck it into the game! I had made it just for fun, since I'd done something similar with Dark Void. I planned on using it at the end of the soundtrack album. Yet, to my surprise, the developers put it in the end credits and even hid it within the game itself. I was pleasantly surprised.
GS: You mentioned a fondness for 8-bit games. What is it like composing using 8-bit sounds when you've been dealing with orchestras and exotic instruments?
BM: 8-bit sounds are essentially an instrument, just like anything else. They have their limitations, but there are also things they do really well. In fact, they are among my most favorite electronic sounds to use in composition. It's just that I rarely have the excuse to use them.
GS: Where do you see video game music heading into the future?
BM: It's interesting. Personally I see it heading into two different places. On one side games are becoming more cinematic, and the narrative experience is becoming more and more important in games. So in one aspect the music will become more like movie music. As the number of cinematic sequences increases and the dramatic impact of those sequences become more powerful and you see motion capture and effective writing and acting all coming together to really tell an experience that will in the near future rival theatrical experiences. I think we're not there yet, but we're getting very close.
On the other hand game music can always do something movies cannot. So in many ways, what interests and excites me is not that games are becoming more like movies, but games evolving into their own art form, into their own narrative method of storytelling. I think game music will continue to become adaptive. It will continue to evolve and change, and the biggest challenges I find are for composers still writing interesting music. Because we can talk all day about music that doesn't loop, music that changes, music that evolves, and frankly there's focus to solely do that. The trick is making it sound emotional, making it sound like actual music. The analogy I always make is that you want it to feel like there's a conductor inside your PlayStation watching you and conducting this orchestra, and when you start making changes, he cues his orchestra, and they change what they're doing. A conductor is a human being, and music is an emotional experience, so it's a combination of technology and emotional art that is coming together in video game music. It's something that's very unique, and that's what excites me, because it's something that I cannot by definition do.
GS: What other artists do you admire in the game music industry and why?
BM: I'm a bit of a foreigner in the video game industry. Game music that I admire is 20 years old. The guys that scored the early Mega Man games. The people that scored a lot of the classics from the 8-bit era are the ones that in many ways I look to, and I can tell you why. In the early days of video game music, recorded music was not popular. You essentially had three different tones: sine waves, triangle waves, and white noise. Now this is like telling a painter they have black, gray, and coal. But you can still make a masterpiece out of this. That's still enough difference to create fully orchestrated, melodic, interesting music, and that's what composers did in the 8-bit era. These melodies that have stuck with us for 30 years have done so because they're great melodies. What happened I think is that in the '90s and even in the modern day, as the technology increased the ability to have ambient music and music that has been recorded with live instruments, the emphasis has gone off melodies. The emphasis has become mood. And that's important, and mood is important, and you know game music to me sounds much better than it did in the 8-bit era, but the melodies are not there. And the melodies aren't there because they don't have to be there. Now composers have so much at their disposal, there are so many sounds that are possible, a nearly limitless amount of sound, that they don't have to write a great melody, a memorable tune. And in many ways when I was working on Dark Void and SOCOM I was thinking back to those 8-bit composers, and I don't know if I achieved it, but my goal was to write a melody that gets stuck in your head the way that the Super Mario Bros. theme did. Or the theme to Mega Man 2. This is music that is really good music, even though the production value of it obviously lacked. So in many ways those are the composers that I admire in the video game industry.
GS: Do you have any advice for aspiring video game composers?
BM: I would say that the video game industry is expanding so quickly that no one is going to be able to keep track of it. I think that the world of casual games and mobile games, these are becoming so sophisticated that they're actually going to require real music. I would say composers should look anywhere--look for online games, look for iPad applications. There's so many things that are going to need music and actually need really good music. I think in many ways, people are not yet taking this industry as seriously as they will be in a year. Or certainly in two or three years I think you're going to start seeing some real competition between consoles and mobile devices for gaming superiority, and in many ways the writing is already on the wall. So for an aspiring composer, this is a very exciting opportunity because you can get in on the ground floor on a small little iPhone application that could go on to become a huge seller and launch your career. That's just my prediction. That's obviously not how I got into the business, but that's what I see happening now, that I'm guessing is the next big need for great music.
GS: Thank you so much for your time!