Sound Byte: Meet the Composer - BioShock Series

We had a lengthy chat with series composer Garry Schyman on his past work with the first two BioShock titles as well as his work with the upcoming BioShock Infinite.


A composer for film, TV, and games, Garry Schyman is renowned for the music and audio work for shows such as Magnum P.I., The A-Team, Revenge of the Nerds III, and Revenge of the Nerds IV. But Schyman is also an accomplished video game composer, most notably on the BioShock series, including the upcoming BioShock Infinite. GameSpot recently talked with the composer and asked him how he managed to encapsulate the spirit of the underwater dystopia Rapture and the flying fortress of Columbia through the power of music.

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How did you get wrapped up doing video game music?

There are two answers to that question. The first time I scored a video game was in the early mid-'90s and it was for Philips Interactive. They had their own unique hardware system called CD-I and a very good friend of mine who I'd scored some film and television work with started to work as a producer at CD-I and asked me to score some games.

So I scored four games for Philips. The first one I scored for them, Voyeur, was orchestral--the very first of its kind recorded for a video game. It was possible because the CD-I technology was about putting everything on a CD, so it permitted the use of recorded music as opposed to midi triggering simple synths engines. But once the CD-I went away, my friend was no longer working there, and I really didn't pursue video games. It wasn't at that period in its history all that interesting.

I got back to it around 2004. By serendipity, an agent I was working with at that time sent my resume over to THQ. They had a game that they were doing called Destroy All Humans! They listened to my demo and heard something they really liked and then they asked me if I had any more music like the music of the famous film composer Bernard Herrmann. One of the reasons they brought him up as a source was that the game was a 1950s sci-fi game, and Bernard Herrmann was famous for his score The Day The Earth Stood Still with theremin and orchestra.

As it turned out, I had scored something in the style of Bernard Herrmann. It had been requested of me previously, and I sent them an orchestral score that just totally nailed that style. It took a while, but eventually I ended up scoring Destroy All Humans! That was a commercial and creative success for me. I was nominated for some awards. I also worked with Emily Ridgway, who was the audio director for that project. She went on to work at Irrational Games, which gave me the opportunity to score BioShock. So in a nutshell, that's my double start in gaming.

How different is it to compose video game music compared to scoring music for TV shows?

They're similar in the sense that both are supporting and underscoring the emotions that the player or viewer should be feeling while watching or playing. Composers compose music to underscore emotions and feelings, there's a magic, and no one really understands why, but I won't go into the philosophy of it because no one really knows why music and images work so amazingly together, but they do.

What composers are doing in games is the same thing that composers are doing in films. We're deepening the emotional connection that the player (or viewer of a film or television show) has with the visual images that they're seeing or the story that's unfolding. In that sense we're storytelling; we're creating music that advances the story, or that sets a mood, or that helps the player or viewer to have a deeper, more satisfying emotional experience as they play or watch.

Technically, there are also differences. The way that music works with film and television music works with those projects literally hasn't changed in 80 years since the talkies in the 1930s. Since that period, music is written and composed for specific scenes; it's then recorded with picture and sound effects and dialogue, and it never changes.

However, game music is often interactive, and so from that standpoint it is and can be quite different. There are challenges and it's constantly changing technologies that permit for more interactivity. It also really depends on who you're working for. Some developers want the music to be very interactive and therefore there are techniques you use to achieve that, writing music in layers, looping music, etc. Other developers want the music to be more cinematic so it is more like film music. So yes, they're similar in their most basic respect, but they're also quite different in some technical aspects. And it affects the way you write the music.

Let's talk about the first two BioShock games. So how did the fusion of aleatoric music, 20th-century classical compositions, and musique concrete come to be? Was that the direction creative designer Ken Levine wanted for the first game?

No, that was me experimenting and finding a direction that felt right for the game. Levine was very involved in the music, in the creative direction for his games, but he never studied music formally. His reaction to music is intuitive, and he has a very strong and very valuable intuitive sense of what works musically. He would never call out a specific style or a specific chord or note. He's going to react to what you write.

So with the original BioShock, it was me experimenting and sending those experiments to Ridgway and her going, "Yeah, that works and that doesn't." She also has a great musical intuition plus she studied music. She really knew when I found the style. I remember literally one day playing with aleatoric textures and then putting some solo violin against it and sending it to her and her going, "That's it, that's the sound of BioShock." It actually took quite a while, quite a few experiments to find that, and once I found it the music really composed itself. I had to write it but it became much easier to write. I wrote it very quickly. But defining the style, that original approach was quite challenging.

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How long did it take you to compose the theme "The Ocean on His Shoulders"?

I think I composed that in a day or two. I was channeling a very strong emotional response; it was a very emotional piece of music. I actually didn't write it to any specific direction that Ridgway had given me, but I was having an emotional reaction to the game, and I started to play around with some simple chords and I said, "This is really beautiful; this is something they will find useful."

I had found the style for the game but I hadn't found the theme, so it was literally me going, "I'm going to write this piece of music and send it to Ridgway and see what she thinks." Their first reaction to it was that "this is very beautiful but it's almost too beautiful." That's when I started adding aleatory elements to its beginning and end. If you notice it begins with this really dissonant kind of eerie atmosphere, then it goes into this really sad, beautiful piece of music and then it ends also with the dark. That made sense to me, but those were actually added later. I didn't compose it that way. They wanted it darker and so that was my way of making it scarier, but it all came together.

Give us some behind-the-scenes commentary and insights on the following BioShock tracks you composed:

"Welcome to Rapture"

The original direction for that piece of music was, "You're going down in a bathysphere and you're going to the scariest place in the world." That was the direction. So I wrote some very scary music and sent it to them, and Levine listened to it and said that's too scary, that's giving it away, like telling people "Hey, it's going to be scary here!" and he said we don't want to do that. I actually said, "I totally agree with you."

That piece of music actually got used elsewhere in the game. So Ridgway said it should be more like the Neptune movement in The Planets by Gustav Holst, a famous piece of music. I don't think the music that I wrote sounds like it at all, but it triggered in me an idea that it can be mysterious; that's what it should be. Plus, I wanted the sense of water, so I started out with this solo violin and this fast-moving passage. So that's how that piece of music came about.

"Cohen's Masterpiece"

For that piece of music the direction was, "There is an evil genius on this one level called Cohen, and he writes a piece of music that's going to be used in the game." I actually did not understand the original idea that a pianist was going to be playing it--Fitzpatrick I think--and that he was going to be blown up for not performing it to Cohen's standards. So I had no idea that that was how it was going to be introduced. They wanted something that was really what you would call in film or television "source music," that there was some source for that music, it was coming from the reality of that world, and it was written by this evil genius.

I started to write a piece in the style of the late Romantic era. I was thinking of Sergei Rachmaninoff, who wrote these romantic concertos and piano pieces well into the mid-20th century. He was considered as writing music that was out of date, although he was very popular. So I thought, "OK, this guy Cohen is going to be kind of reactionary in that sense too--he's composing in the '50s/'60s but he's not going to be writing the most 'hip,' contemporary classical music. He's going to be writing something from 30 or 40 years earlier." So that was the motivation, and I just started writing the piece and sent it to Emily, and she goes, "Yeah, this is very cool. Keep writing that piece." It took me a couple of days to write, but it turned out to be a very satisfying piece of music to write because it was like composing classical music.

"Dancers on a String"

The direction there was you're entering a part of the city where the people live. I think that was the direction for something early on that never actually was fully fleshed out in the game, but it was supposed to be the deck level where the people lived. They wanted a sense of tragedy about it because you would see families that had been murdered, died together, or committed suicide. It was going to be something deeply troubling, so that was my response to the direction they gave me; something sad and beautiful against these dark and frightening textures.

Looking back, what was the toughest track to write and compose, just for the sake of getting the dystopian feel of the universe?

It was the track for the first playable area, which is not necessarily an important track. It was difficult nailing the overall style from that one piece; I'm not even sure if that music got used often, to be honest. It wasn't a particularly important piece of music, but finding that was the thing that triggered all my imagination and thoughts and really gave me the direction.

How did you personally feel when you had your BioShock and BioShock 2 music available for free in 2010?

Initially, I was put off by it, but as it turned out, it was serendipitous, because so many people heard my music very quickly. I'm lucky that it turned out that way because a lot of people listened to and heard my score who may not otherwise have purchased the soundtrack. At that time when it came out, YouTube was not all that popular, so it wasn't so easy to find scores. I considered it a lucky break.

Now let's head on to the upcoming BioShock Infinite. What was the direction for the soundtrack this time around? How many cellos and violins will be used?

It varied. I had a lot of separate sessions. We decided early on that an orchestral approach was wrong, and we found that using small groups of string players--as few as one, two, and three, and as many as 10--was really the right sound. In game/film/TV music, what you do is mock up the cue using samples and synths etc., but what I was finding was that Levine really got it when he heard the actual performance versus the samples. Solo string samples don't sound all that good; they're actually awful sounding. So I said, "Let's have some sessions; they're relatively inexpensive."

They're not like an orchestra; you're only having a few players, and you can go into a small studio and record them and see if that works. And we found that that's what really sold Levine on different cues. So I had literally 10 or 12 sessions. One session I had was with two players, and then I had a session with three players, and then we had a group of sessions with 10 players, which I found was a great ensemble: three violins, three violas, three cellos, and a double bass. That was a great sound for a lot of the music.

What century music styles did you have to get inspiration from for this game?

I didn't use music of that period, but certainly the simplicity of that period and the simpler times of small-town American cities--that was an inspiration for me. Even the music of Stephen Foster, the famous songwriter from the 1800s, who wrote so many famous songs: "Camptown Races" and "Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair," dozens and dozens of huge hits, some of which are still performed today, along with some very aggressive music for the combat as well.

It was a mix; it was what worked. It wasn't so much the century; it was the characters. We have these two really strong characters which are central to the game. They were what inspired me. And later on you're introduced to more characters. I would say that much of the score is character-driven.

What parts of BioShock and BioShock 2 did you borrow and put into BioShock Infinite? Or is BioShock Infinite's music completely created from the ground up, given its new setting and time period(s)?

Levine was very explicit from the beginning that this was a new world and that the music should not sound like the original BioShock music. It was a total fresh start, and that was very important to him. It was something that I totally agreed with, and he was absolutely correct on that. There is almost no overlap, stylistically speaking.

Without spoiling anything, which compositions in the game did you have a tough time nailing down?

I think it was the musical direction; it was finding that first cue that I felt excited about and felt really represented the game and also that Levine responded to. That was Elizabeth's theme and representing her relationship with Booker. That's a critical part of the game. Finding that was really important, and I remember literally going in and having a very strong intuitive sense that I'd found it, and not even saying anything to the team, I went in on my own dime and recorded the music.

When I played it for Levine, he responded, "Yes, that's it!" He was very excited about this piece of music, and when I found Elizabeth's theme, it was like, "OK, now I really know the direction here; this is how it's going to unfold." That and finding the style for the combat was also critical.

As the game is now gold, were there any changes you would have wanted music-wise, or is everything perfect?

Oh it's never perfect, but I'm very satisfied with the score and the way it turned out. At first I wasn't sure that a non-orchestral approach was right, but I totally came away feeling that I'd found a really great sound for this game with the small groups of players. I think that really worked extremely well.

Hypothetically speaking, if you had a chance to work on any established video game IP's music, which would be your first pick? What new things would you bring to the table music-wise to that IP?

I think I would like to score the next Portal. Mostly because I love to play that game so much. I'm just such a huge fan of that game; to me it's just a really fun and extraordinary game. I'm assuming they'll make a Portal 3. I don't know. But if you're listening out there, Valve, I would love to score that game. It doesn't strike me as the kind of game that really calls out for such a strong score, although who knows what they'll do with the third iteration. But I just think it would be such a blast to work on something that I personally love so much.

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