Work at Bungie: Composer
In this installment of our ongoing look at jobs and job types within Bungie Studios, we talk to the legendary Marty O'Donnell about the options available to would-be video game musicians.
Just to clue you in on the importance of the Halo music in and out of games – you know how much music adds to the campaign mode, but did you know that the Halo 2 soundtrack is the biggest selling video game soundtrack in US history? To put that in perspective, the original Halo soundtrack was one of the biggest sellers ever, and Halo 2's has already sold almost ten times as many and continues to perform brilliantly. Rumor has it that the Grammys may even consider a video game soundtrack category in the future.
And so they should, since it's one of the most innovative types of music around – interactive, context sensitive and quite different from even the movie music it's often compared to.
Now, the music industry is filled with legends, and they all have titles that signify their rank and importance, their place in the constellation of musical superstars. Frank Sinatra is the Chairman of the Board, Bruce Springsteen is the Boss, Prince is the Prince and of course Elvis is their King. What then to call Marty O'Donnell, the composer of the Halo soundtracks? Should we call him Maestro? Too predictable. Should we call him Great Leader? Nah, too North Korean. How about Der Gruppenfuhrer? Too -blam!-!
Marty needs a title that speaks of his harsh disciplinarian's strict adherence to order, to his Wagnerian sense of pomp and bombast, to his moon-sized space faring Battle Station. Ladies and gentlemen I present to you, O'Donnell – Grand Moff Marty!
You can find out more about this sonic superhero here:
Home of the Marty Army.
We'd like to offer special thanks to Marty for answering our questions while he's busily working on the Halo 2 soundtrack – Volume Two.
Marty, You create compelling soundtracks for video games, but what did you do before that?
I created compelling soundtracks for movies and commercials. My business partner, Mike Salvatori, and I started a music and sound production company called (surprisingly) O’Donnell/Salvatori. All through the 80’s and 90’s we made original jingles such as “We are Flintstones Kids”, and scored films such as “Drunk Driving is Not a Good Thing” for the National Safety Council. Around ’96 I started working on audio for games, first Cyan’s Riven, the Sequel to Myst and then Bungie’s Myth: The Fallen Lords. I haven’t looked back since.
What do you think a logical path for say, a high schooler looking to get into video game audio is?
Play games, study games. Play music, study music. Play in a band, produce audio on your computer. Make friends with smart programmer types and convince them to make a game. Do the audio for it.
What kind of tools and equipment do you use making soundtracks for a video game?
Macs and PCs. Pro-Tools, Digital Performer, Peak, Sound Forge, Sibelius, sample libraries, keyboards, microphones, mixing consoles, speakers, cables blah blah blah.
How has game music composition changed since the days of Genesis and Super NES?
I don’t know exactly because during those days I was writing “Ten million strong – and growing” but from what I can hear, we’re no longer constrained by midi playback. Also, because we can have real dialog, and real sounds, we no longer have to play music non-stop. Why many games still have non-stop music is a mystery to me.
What other applications would a musical education have?
Teacher, rock-star, movie composer, or homeless person.
Are there other game audio jobs a person could consider?
You must be from Scotland or something because I don’t understand that question at all. But I’ll answer it with a resounding “Yes!”
Marty's advanced years sometimes prevent him from parsing even the simplest of sentences, so we'll interject here with some opportunities:
– makes sound effects, mixes sound effects, implements 5.1 surround, deals with dialog, you name it.
– If you have a more engineering-type target for your job prospects, there are a number of programming opportunities that are sound related, but as games become more complex, these are likely to be the mainstay of specialist audio companies, rather than game studios.
– As games and movies become more similar in terms of production values – it's likely that the audio aspects of each industry will become more closely aligned. Dialog recording of actors, music mixing studios, and the production of sound effects (Foley) will become more important and widespread. Maintaining a full time staff to handle that kind of stuff will make less sense, and some of those tasks will be brought in from outside agencies when required.
And if Marty keeps aging as rapidly as he is, he'll be replaced by a cruel Casiotone Robot. Or a younger, more virile musician, like Tommy Tallarico.
What’s different about making music for movies and making music for games?
The power of music is the same in both mediums. The difference comes from the fact that one is passive and one is dynamic. For the most part, the audience of a movie is passive and the form itself is linear. As a film composer I have exact knowledge of the future down to the minute, second and frame. I can lead the emotions of the audience to be in almost perfect sync with the scene itself. Games are a dynamic medium. The player is an active agent in the imaginary world that we’ve created. I still want to synchronize their emotions with important game moments, but it’s harder since the player has so much more control of time and pacing. We’ve come up with some cool solutions to this problem and I believe we’re getting better and better with each new title.