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.

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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.

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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.
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.

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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.
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!

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