Sound Byte: Meet the Composer - Diablo III
We talk to audio director/composer Russell Brower on the sounds and melodies of Blizzard's clickfest.
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Diablo III may have received plenty of headlines and inspired many opinion pieces and features, not always for the better, but what gamers can't fault is the game's production values. From the game's art style to its music, developer Blizzard takes pride in making everything click (so to speak).
Here we're focusing on the aural aspect of this action role-playing game, and in doing so audio director and composer Russell Brower chatted with us to dish out the thought process involved in Diablo III.
GameSpot: Tell us about your background in music.
Russell Brower: As a young adult, I had an eclectic mix of being exposed to wonderful film scores and classical music my entire life, along with some early piano lessons and extensive choral-singing experience.
The rest is a mix of some mentorship opportunities over my early years with incredibly influential and brilliant composers. George Wilkins, Shirley Walker, Buddy Baker, and others were all very generous with their time and knowledge. I was often working as a sound designer alongside them on projects for Disney and others.
GS: What was the design mantra in making the game's music?
RB: Foremost, we desired to remain true to the mood and feel of the original Diablo games, at least towards the beginning of the campaign and in select later areas. We knew there would be plenty of opportunities to explore new musical ideas and support the story and character development specific to Diablo III.
GS: With such a rich lore in music, was the music-making process a little easier for Diablo III since you can refer back to parts I and II?
RB: Having a clear starting point in the course of any creative endeavor is helpful, so we took the notion of maintaining the timeless qualities of the Diablo scores very seriously. At Blizzard, we create the gaming experiences we want to play ourselves.
In many ways, we were attempting to listen to the score with the same ears as our players who loved the classic Diablo music. This created a challenge we found both stimulating and humbling.
GS: When Matt Uelmen did the concept audio a few years back, it served as the basis for Diablo III's theme. Tell us the process of how this came about.
RB: While I was not yet employed by Blizzard when Matt began composing for Diablo III, he left us a rich palette of ideas he had been exploring. We also invited him to spend about 90 minutes in our recording booth with the very same 12-string guitar he had previously used, performing many of the melodies and progressions along with a spoken commentary of his plans.
Some of these recordings are included in the New Tristram track heard throughout Act One. If you listen closely to the score to Diablo II: Lord of Destruction, you can also hear the musical "DNA" for Diablo III’s central theme.
GS: What are the main instruments used for the game's music?
RB: Other than the 12-string guitar, there are a myriad of stringed instruments on New Tristram, such as the mandolin, hammered dulcimer, and several homemade sampled instruments. Add the 94-piece Pacific Symphony, the choral work of ANÚNA from Dublin, and the London Voices, you have yourself the ingredients for an epic score!
GS: There's a lot of emphasis on acoustics for the majority of the stage and open-air areas in Act I's music. Was this your team's intention?
RB: The grand majority of Diablo III's music is acoustic and played by live musicians, so the choices we made for each area were based more upon the overall tone colors and feel, rather than whether the instrumentation was acoustic or not.
GS: Describe the thought processes when making the ambience and music for Act II.
RB: Sparser instrumentation relative to the other and more epic music cues that effectively mirror the magnificent desolation of the desert areas: that was the choice we ran with. This also allowed the ambient wind and other desert sounds more room to be heard.
GS: Regarding Act III, what are the key thoughts on designing the music for this act? Did you revisit Lords of Destruction in terms of musical inspiration, as it is set in Mt. Arreat?
RB: A special musical theme had been composed for the Prime Evil Azmodan, so once he revealed that Arreat would be the entry point of the invasion, those tones carried through.
GS: Among all of the music made for the game, which one took the longest to compose and perfect?
RB: We honestly can't be specific about this. The process of writing the music did not take as long as the task of implementing the music into the game, which is an art in and of itself. Derek Duke and Joseph Lawrence, both of whom composed a great deal of music for Diablo III, spent many weeks choosing and perfecting how to trigger each piece of music to play throughout the campaign.
GS: For music aficionados, which track do you recommend them to pay attention to?
RB: I would like to encourage everyone to listen to the soundtrack as a whole, and let it take you on a journey. Each track has its own purpose; some are evil-sounding, while some are deceptively beautiful. It's often fun to work against cliches: for instance, we cast the seductively beautiful voices of ANÚNA to portray the Burning Hells, while we tasked the mostly male subset of the London Voices to represent the sound of the High Heavens.
GS: Some old-school players grumble that the music may not be up to par with Diablo I's Tristram theme, or that Diablo III's music isn't as "experimental" as Diablo I's Caves or Catacombs themes. What do you say to that?
RB: Each chapter of the Diablo saga is different. You can hear Matt Uelmen’s progression from the eclectic sounds of Tristram to the Wagner-influenced raw power of his Diablo II score. In Diablo III, players will encounter tributes to both styles, alongside some new ideas which track the continuum of the storyline.
GS: From a postmortem perspective, what did the team do right in the game's sound and music design? Could you elaborate on this further?
RB: I love the dynamic soundscape which seems to always have something new going on as you explore each region; there's always another strange, unseen creature lurking just offscreen, which creates a greater sense of immersion. The voice-over work is also a high point for me: Blizzard began working with the highest caliber of Hollywood voice talent on Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty, and continued this trend with Diablo III. Directors Andrea Toyias and Andrea Romano both did an outstanding job.
GS: Also, what did the team do wrong? Were there any problems dealing with the game's long development cycle?
RB: Since the development cycle for Diablo III was, indeed, a long one, other projects would sometimes command our attention away from Diablo III for brief periods. We turned this into a positive situation, however, because each time we returned to the project, our ears were refreshed and we were able to maintain a greater objectivity and an increased sense of "what will this sound like to a new player?" This is a scenario which can be challenging to simulate otherwise. I am incredibly proud of our talented Blizzard sound team, and we are looking forward to working on future Diablo content.
GS: With Diablo III done and over with, what projects will you be working on next?
RB: I am currently working on the Mists of Pandaria expansion to World of Warcraft.