Twelve years after entering the games industry, currently working as the audio manager for SEGA’s studio The Creative Assembly, I have directed audio on various projects including Total War’s BAFTA winning and Ivor Novello nominated Empire: Total War and our latest release Napoleon: Total War.
Part of my responsibility is music production, whether written by myself or utilising freelance composers. We are passionate about the games we produce and the high quality we want to deliver.
For this reason I pushed to start recording our scores live – bringing a depth, detail, musicality and level of emotion to the music that’s simply unachievable with electronic renditions alone.
Games and budgets have grown, quality bars and expectations raised, and composers now have to develop skills to be able to work with, and get the most out of, live orchestral recordings. This article is an insight in to my approach on our recent productions, which have featured live orchestras, sometimes with choir and solo performances.
Napoleon’s score was our most ambitious to date. Conceptually I wanted a period music flavour, exuding 18th Century style, featuring ensembles such as full orchestra, chamber strings, string quartet and choir, giving the game depth and colour, musically.
This pallet would provide a good foundation but the final component would be writing that conveyed characteristics of the period. Not since my university days had I studied the classical composers.
I delved back in to the scores of Mozart, Beethoven and their contemporaries, listening to their music, absorbing the flavours and deciding what felt appropriate for the game and how to use this to create the thematic ideas that were woven in to the fabric of the music, personifying Napoleon and gelling the game together.
Recording orchestras is quite an involved process. Furthermore, preparation is crucial to minimise risk and reduce stress.
Some important areas beyond
* Researching and picking musical contractors / musicians.
* Recording venues / engineers
* Preparing MIDI files
* Directing the recording session
* Producing and approving final mixes
Over time we’ve gotten used to having absolute control over the sculpting and creating of our music in the electronic realm with MIDI. However, a live orchestra/choir are living, breathing organisms that interpret our musical intentions via printed instructions on sheet music – things can be interpreted incorrectly, so prepare adequately.
Additionally, as composers we’re able to use musical or production techniques that may not translate well to a live performance. These have to be dealt with through orchestration or by keeping certain elements electronic to combine with the live recording.
It takes time exploring the professional recording orchestras, choirs, contractors and engineers, honing in on the ones to trust with recording your score, making calls, listening to demos and obtaining quotes etc.
Once you have settled on your choice, you set the date for the session or sessions and plan everything leading up to that, taking in to account all of your specific project milestone dates.
To minimise surprises, I want to know that when we record, it will sound like when I composed it. Helping achieve that is an orchestrator who’ll proof check the instrument parts making any necessary amendments, but I also create fully orchestrated MIDI mock-ups using Digital Performer for each piece. This serves two purposes; firstly that there will be less chance of surprises during the recording and secondly, if for any reason the recording did not happen, we’d always have good quality MIDI versions for backup.
Once finished, MIDI files are produced for the music, note lengths and timings tidied and the structure organised to make it easy for the orchestrator to follow and produce the sheet music.
IT’S ABOUT TIME
During the recording, as producer, time is where the pressure lies. This is spent pouring over the score, following as the orchestra plays, ensuring what we hear is what is written, identifying areas for improvement.
It’s a strange situation; on one hand you’re excited about hearing your music come alive, on the other mindful of the fact that in each session a certain amount of minutes needs recording and there is high pressure from that – especially when trying to extract maximum quality out of each session.
Of the recent scores I’ve produced, all have been recorded with the entire orchestra performing together. This offers a cohesive recording more naturally balanced. However if mistakes occur everyone has to re-perform until correct, thus adding pressure, while mixing flexibility is also sacrificed.
You can record in instrumental orchestral sections at the expense of intonation and balance, but gaining ability to fix things on a more detailed level mixes better. Which option you choose to select of course depends on your own particular project.