“I find the black keys on a piano really scary,” jokes Fable’s renowned composer, Russell Shaw, when citing reasons for using the mixolydian scale as the basis for his latest music score.
For the layman, he explains the musical scale is comprised of ‘all the white keys on a keyboard played over a G root’. The end result is an overwhelmingly Celtic feel reflecting central protagonist Gabriel’s ancient tribal background and a soundtrack which subliminally melds with much of the Scottish Highlands-inspired scenery through which he travels.
With longtime collaborators Allan Wilson, plus the Slovac National Symphony Orchestra, a team of percussionists from the Philharmonia and the Pinewood Singers onboard – all embellished by the able talents of ace Celtic instrument specialist, Bob White, Russell Shaw assembled a triple-A music team for Fable: The Journey.
With the self-evident success and fans’ deep appreciation of his previous work on the now almost hallowed franchise – not to mention game design legend Peter Molyneux’s high praise – was starting yet another Fable a dream or a nightmare?
“It was daunting,” reveals Shaw. “I had some classic writer’s block and battled for a while at the start. Then came this hallelujah moment when I got the main Albion theme which I’m still really pleased with – definitely a high point from this game for me.”
Shaw certainly got into his stride producing an overall total of some four-to-five hours of music for the game, taking alternative versions into account. This is approaching double the amount for any of his previous projects.
DOWN THE LINE
So, given the generally linear nature of Fable: The Journey, was there any call to bring interactive music to the experience?
“Yes, actually, there was,” says Shaw. “Sure, the music is pretty much straight linear cues for much of the game, but one area where we did require interactivity was combat. It can go in certain directions depending on what you do as a player so we realised early on we’d need something quite dynamic, changing on-the-fly.
“Using Wwise meant we had a ready-made interactive music system which could be as basic or as complex as we wanted to make it. We opted for relatively simple dynamics, using fade-ins and fade-outs of alternative track versions – downbeat, middle and higher intensities – with stingers on key trigger points. It works really well.”
To help achieve the sense of dynamic intensity, Shaw embarked on something of a percussion-fest.
“Some years ago, I saw Stomp – the band that use makeshift percussion instruments like oilcans and dustbin lids to create immensely complex rhythms. It was amazing and beautiful,” admits Sure.
“I decided I wanted to do something like that for The Journey. So Allan and I went for a tour of Bell Percussion in London, who supply instruments for most of the major movie productions like Harry Potter and Star Wars. We literally went around the place drawing up a shopping list of about sixty instruments, including Chinese, African, Samba and Celtic sets.
“Then we hired Air Studios for a day and got six percussionists from the Philharmonia down and had them create and record rhythmic layers. The result was fantastic and that’s what I used to build up our combat layers for the interactive music system.”
That Russell Shaw was able to focus for the most part on creating the game’s music score is testament to how well and how quickly new-kid-on-the-block, Steve Brown – brought in to direct sound design in-house at Lionhead – bedded into the project.
A FABLED FREINDSHIP
“Soon after Steve got involved, it became obvious he was more than capable of taking the role of sound supervisor, and we formed a very strong working relationship,” say Shaw of Lionhead’s latest audio recruit.
“I’m a big Fable fan, so it was an incredible opportunity for me,” adds Brown. “Russ and I would often have creative conversations about how we might like the tone in a particular area to be – would we lead with sound design here or music there for dramatic effect, and how best to realise all the beauty we wanted to inject.
“We structured things in a movie-like way, compartmentalising aspects of the audio – music, dialogue, the horse and cart travelling experience, the creatures, the environment and so on. The sound design was divvied up between myself, our central audio team at Microsoft Studios and Soundelux in Hollywood, plus foley recording at Pinewood Studios in Shepperton.
“The game world of Albion is so rich and it’s kind of instinctive how to do the sound for it – plus we have such a great canon of sound design from the previous Fable titles to reference.
“Having the breadth of talent that worked on the sound – some 35 people in all – and being able to pull all that together and actually let people breathe and be creative rather than try to micro-manage the sound design is something I’m really happy about. Specifically I guess the stand out sound feature for me has to be the horse and how we got such emotion into the horse vocals.”