Music To Make Love By
By Matt Soell
June 10, 2002
On the eve of the Halo Soundtrack's release, we are forced to confront a question we have managed to evade thus far: just what is it that makes Halo's music so compelling for so many people? Is it the technological sophistication, the seamless blend of traditional and synthesized instruments, the mingling of ancient and modern compositional styles? Is it the brilliance of the composition itself, with its epic sweep and the haunting melodies, music that encompasses everything from orchestral grandeur to pulsing rock to eerie ambience and back again?
Is it, perhaps, the siren song of love itself hidden in the mix?
You might be thinking "Matt's finally gone over the high side." But I can't deny the evidence of my own eyes. Look at the numbers. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, have emailed us asking for a soundtrack CD in language that veers between plaintive and threatening. People need this music like junkies need hard drugs. It's not just a desire, it's almost a physical need.
Then you've got the interest from Nile Rodgers, the man responsible for everything from "Le Freak" to "Like A Virgin." From the 1970s onward, Nile Rodgers has been responsible for writing and producing a disturbingly high percentage of the tunes that filled nightclubs with sweaty, grinding dancers. Maybe you didn't dance to it; maybe you didn't even like it. But you can't deny that a whole lotta people have gotten their groove on to Niles Rodgers' music over the years. Now he wants to help bring the Halo soundtrack to the masses. If there's one thing Nile Rodgers knows, it's how to sell Music to Make Babies By.
Which brings me to my third point: here at Bungie HQ, where Halo's music has been the soundtrack to our lives for the last couple of years, there sure are a whole lotta babies all of a sudden. The pregnancy rate around here shot up several hundred percent over the last year, when Halo was undergoing constant playtesting and the music was pounded into everyone's heads, even those who weren't playing at the time. The ones who aren't having babies are thinking and talking about having babies. Coincidence? Hardly. The simple, undeniable facts are these: the Halo Soundtrack is sex itself, distilled into its purest and most effective digital audio format. And Marty O'Donnell is the new Barry White.
I stepped into Marty's recording studio (dubbed "The Ivory Tower" by Jason Jones - note the phallic imagery) for a quick chat about the Halo Soundtrack CD and the aphrodisiac properties thereof. The sterile, utilitarian confines of the recording studio belie the raw, powerful grooves that issue from within. Indeed, the professionalism of the man himself is such that it's hard to believe this charming and jovial man is responsible for what will probably go down (in history, I mean) as one of the most intensely erotic discs of the twenty-first century.
Matt: Was there an overarching theme or emotion for the soundtrack?
Marty: I want people who listen to the soundtrack to have the same sort of emotional experience they'd have if they were playing the game, so in that sense there wasn't a major change between my goals for the soundtrack and my goals for the game itself. I tried to mix the soundtrack in a way you might hear it while playing the game, although it will never be exactly the same because the music will be slightly different every time you play. Along the way I'd mix smaller pieces together, or separate pieces that I'd initially intended to play together, and cut to something new when I'd had enough. I spent a lot of time thinking, "How can I make this 40-second piece last two and a half minutes?" I didn't want a lot of interruptions.
Matt: Yeah, interruptions are bad. So did you sequence the soundtrack CD in any particular order?
Marty: To an extent, I wanted it to be similar to the order in which the pieces were introduced in the game. Sometimes I'd move things around a bit just to vary the flow of the pieces.
Marty: Meaning that instead of three slow pieces in a row, you'll hear a slow piece, then a fast piece, then another slow piece. Just to give things a more...natural rhythm.
Matt: Uh-huh. Was anything cut from the soundtrack for being "too hot," so to speak?
Marty: Not at all. The only things I cut were a few ambient pieces that were too long or slow. Maybe a few subtle variations on the main theme. There were also a few instances where two pieces I originally wrote to play simultaneously are separated on the CD. Upon first listen it might sound as if something's missing, but it's still there – it's just in a context you wouldn't expect. The soundtrack is an opportunity for people to hear the Halo music in a way they probably haven't heard before. My dad, for example, played through the game so slowly that he ended up missing a lot of stuff.
Matt: Sounds like he's got a lot of stamina.
Marty: Don't even go there.
Matt: Let's cut to the chase, Marty: are there subliminal messages in the Halo music?
[eyes shifting, mouth smirking] Maybe.
Matt: What effects do you think prolonged, repeated listening to the Halo soundtrack would have on the average listener?
Marty: Well, I'm a lover, not a fighter, and I hope the essential nature of who I am comes through the music. It may not be obvious when you're playing the game and so much of your attention is devoted to fighting, but when you listen to the soundtrack on your stereo, there's nothing to get between the two of us. Now that I think about it, there's actually a piece I called the "Halo Love Theme" that didn't make it to the soundtrack. It might show up on the web someday.
Matt: Aha! So you DID cut something out for being too hot!
Marty: No, it's just a byproduct of the work process. I love to do specific stuff for each level in the game; I don't ever want people to be bored. So I end up sketching out a lot of different stuff during the development process as the team explores different ideas and I try to write music that would make sense in that context. Inevitably things change and I have some pieces I wrote that don't really fit in the game anymore. "Halo Love Theme" was one of those.
Did you ever notice that the cutscenes that played at the beginning and end of each level are called the "insertion" and "extraction" cutscenes?
Matt: Yes. [long pause] Is there more to this story?
Marty: I just thought you might find the idea of "insertion" and "extraction" germane to this conversation.
Matt: I think I'll just move on to the next question.
Marty: Suit yourself.
Matt: Has there been any thought of a music video, sort of like the one they did for John Williams' Phantom Menace score?
Marty: No. I was just kidding.
Matt: Oh well. What about the public reaction in general? Has there been an influx of "Marty Groupies" as a result of the Halo music?
Marty: I don't think it's necessarily anything different about the music itself, or the way I composed it. I think that it has a lot to do with Halo being a hugely popular game, with a bigger profile than any of Bungie's previous games. The music has a better venue as well. More people are hearing the music piped from the Xbox audio hardware to their Dolby Surround home theater setup instead of a little $10 speaker set connected to a sound card they bought three years ago or whatever. So it's a little easier for the music to impress people now. The Marty Army helps too.
Matt: Some of the more memorable musical moments in Halo come when the drums kick in. Was there a conscious decision on your part to use that tribal percussion sound for a more physical groove?
Marty: I've honestly never thought about it that way. When you think about it, those "tribal" drums are a recurring motif in my work. I guess it just comes naturally.
Matt: Let me ask one last question: do you think the Halo soundtrack is ideal background music for a night of passion?
Marty: I can't imagine anything better.
Matt: My sentiments exactly. Any parting words?
Marty: The problem with most game music is that most game designers want music to be unobtrusive. They know they're just going to loop the music, so they don't want music that does something interesting or builds up a head of steam in any way, because the sooner you notice the music, the sooner you'll notice it's repeating over and over again. The cool thing about Halo is that the music is actually an important part of the experience, and because we wanted the experience to be as memorable as possible, I was able to compose music that actually builds to several climaxes. So to speak.
The Halo Soundtrack CD is now available at the Bungie Store and fine record stores everywhere. Buy your copy before the PMRC forces it off the market. And don't say we didn't warn you.