Halo 2 Aural Pleasure
Friday, July 11th, 2003, 9:24 AM
Marty O’Donnell, Audio Director (aka Marty the Elder) along with Jay Weinland, Lead Sound Designer, (Jay the Younger) make up the audio dynamo responsible for everything you heard in the Halo 2 demo. Whether it’s the delicate musings of a harp or the roar of incoming Marine bombers, there’s a tremendous amount of audio elements woven into the demo experience. I recently sat down with both guys to ask a few questions and get a better idea of how they do what they do.
Can you give us an overview of the process and what it takes to put the audio elements into this type of project?
Jay : Since we were essentially just making a portion of Halo2 work for E3 we approached it in nearly the same way we do when finishing a game except we were doing it for only one level. So we break out all of the various aspects of the audio including music, weapons, ambience, animations, footsteps, and dialog. A couple months before E3 we had the specific plan of exactly what we wanted to do with the demo and could focus on creating the assets that would be needed. As usual there was a huge outpouring in the final weeks leading up the show. In essence it was a microcosm of what we can expect later this year when we finish the rest of the game.
Marty :A few of us got together early in the year to discuss what we needed to accomplish at E3. Lots of brainstorming and big crazy ideas (especially from Joe) which finally got winnowed down into a plan that was hopefully doable. At that point I started thinking about what sort of music and audio would be required to make it happen. Originally we thought that we’d do something similar to the 2001 Gamestock event where we had live gameplay choreographed to music being played off a CD. We weren’t sure how much of the new sound engine would be ready for a live test by May, but eventually we decided to have everything playing out of the Xbox from the Halo2 engine.
What was the biggest difference/challenge in working on the E3 2003 Demo as opposed to the original Halo 2 announce trailer ?
Jay : Without a doubt it was the fact that everything had to work in-engine. For the announcement trailer we were doing traditional audio post production on a movie. For the E3 demo we needed to create, attach, and mix all of the audio within the confines of the game engine. This is a much more difficult and arduous process but in the end we were both satisfied with the outcome and the fact that the entire process helped us to streamline the audio engine and identify action items as we move forward.
Marty : Live 5.1 music and ambience. We’ve never tried that before. The Halo 1 sound engine had live 5.1 of all the mono sounds that needed spatialization. Music and ambience were stereo but played out of both the front and rear speakers. Halo 2 will have true Surround Sound ambience and music. Also, although the middle part of the demo was full of cool scripted events, the timing changed every time someone played through it, I wanted the music to follow the excitement and still build to a climax. That meant I needed to write and record a piece that once it started never let you go and still was able to flex with variable game-time.
*note - Check out an excerpt from the musical score of the original Halo 2 announce trailer here.
Are there any rituals or traditions you abide by when it comes to putting together the audio mix for a game like this?
Marty: Beg for more mix time. It's become a tradition to tweak things until the last minute and as a result we only had one afternoon to do the final mix on the whole thing. (Some say this "tradition" is actually a diabolical plot devised by Joe to make Marty miserable. -ed.)
Jay : Make it good!
Can you explain the process you go through to actually compose the musical score for Halo 2? Do you just start messing around on a keyboard and build from there?
Marty : I think about themes that I’ve already used in previous Halo pieces and what those themes represent. Then I get storyboards or better yet, captured video of a section of the demo and start playing music on my keyboard to the picture. Usually something good starts to happen, at least that’s what I depend on. At some point I rough out some music and I start to orchestrate it using samplers. That’s usually when I bring Joe or Jason in to listen and give me some feedback. We even put the unfinished intro music into the build so everyone on the team could get a feeling for the progress we were making.
Tell us about working with the orchestra. How did that go? Was Marty conducting?
Jay : This was one thing I was very sorry to miss. We had planned on having me be at the session and helping out with some of the conducting duties but as the day approached it became apparent that I should really be at the office plowing in more sound. Next time...
Marty : Yeah, unfortunately I was the sole Bungie representative at the big orchestral/choir recording session. I had my wife, Marcie, conduct the choir because she’s an incredible conductor. She’s also probably the only conductor that would let me write new music in between takes and still conduct it. As far as the orchestra goes, I like to record in sections; High strings first, low strings second, horns and flute, that sort of process means that it’s not as important to have a conductor there. The players are listening to my recording of sampled instruments as they play which includes a click track, so they might not even pay attention to a conductor anyway. That way I can be in the control room actually hearing what we’re putting on tape (or hard disk), and not have to worry about waving my arms in front of a bunch of really good musicians.
For the Halo 2 announce trailer, you both played a number of instruments. What instruments, if any, did you guys play for this latest endeavor?
Jay : Due to lack of time I was unable to play at all on this recording but rest assured I’ll do my best to worm my way into the rest of the music.
Marty : I’ll get Jay to play oboe and English horn someplace on Halo 2, but he was too valuable as a sound designer on the demo this time. I ended up singing, playing percussion, piano, and harp.
Any anxiety on your part for topping what was one of the highest acclaimed game soundtracks in recent memory?
Marty : What? Ok great, now I'm nervous!
The E3 demo featured several new elements (the Covenant cannon, SMGs, Guass rifle, etc..) that all required new sound effects. How do you guys go about coming up with those sounds? Is there anything in particular that you fall back on for inspiration?
Jay : The most important thing is matching the sounds to the visual effects of the weapon. The next most important factor is the functionality of the weapon (how much damage it does etc). So taking the case of the Covy cannon there is a kind of blue electrical plume when it fires which led me to add some electric aspects to the sound effect. Also this gun does a huge amount of damage and should sound incredibly powerful. We added a wind-up prior to the cannon firing to help create some anticipation of impending doom. I usually let the source material inspire me. I may listen through a lot of stuff and pull a lot of different things which for whatever reason strike me as perhaps being a interesting part of what I am trying to make. I then pull all of it into a Pro Tools session and start playing. In the case of the covy cannon I pulled a few dozen elements into a session but only ended up using 6-8 (heavily morphed from their origins).
Marty : I still keep my hand in on the sound design (just to keep Jay honest) and a lot of times I’ll let Jay start making something and I’ll jump in and add a little something to what he’s done. Sometimes I’ll just say to Jay "more ear candy" and leave it at that. We spend a lot of time working on the sounds of the weapons and vehicles because we know how important those sounds will be while playing the game. Movie sound design is a big inspiration for us because that’s where some of the best work has been done. My goal is to meet or exceed the audio experience of my favorite movies.
What is your favorite part of this process and what is your personal favorite audio element in the finished product?
Jay : The process can be rather painful, especially at the end. Some people thrive on sleeping in bean bag chairs around the office but they are also usually young, unmarried, and childless (none of which applies to me). However despite the long hours I really like the electricity during those times, the feeling that we’re really making something special that the gaming world is going to love. As far as a personal favorite element, that is tough. I am partial to Marty’s score as well as a lot of the sound design in the outro. However the pelican flyovers and landing sequence was probably my favorite to work on and takes my vote. The Halo audio engine now allows us to do full 5.1 mixes and this demo was the first time we really put it to the test. There are times in the intro/outro when up to 3 surround mixes are playing simultaneously!
Marty : It’s good that Jay said that thing about being partial; he knows how his bread is buttered. Not everyone at Bungie agrees with my choice to include harp during the intro, but I like how that turned out. I also really like the new sound of the ghosts, and the plasma sword being brandished. My favorite moment for this particular process was when our demo Xbox decided to revolt during the final dress rehearsal of the Microsoft Xbox Press Conference. The three VP’s looked a bit panicked. I, of course, was cool as a cucumber.
Anything else you’d like to share with us?
Jay : You ain’t seen nothin yet! This game is going to be glorious in every way and hopefully will bring in even more Bungie fans to help with the ole world domination plan. See you on the flip side...
Marty : I just plan to stay within myself, have a good time, and put the puck in the net. I think the Cananimators are starting to rub off on me...
Thanks to Marty and Jay for their time and insight into the audio creation process. Rest assured we’ll be keeping tabs on their progress as Halo 2 continues towards release.
As a special treat, they hooked us up with some special audio goodies for our Tru7h & Reconciliation Site. The newly added Halo Dialog Archive contains some of the lesser heard dialog bits from the original game. We’ll continue to add more in the weeks ahead. We’ve also got a new Halo 2 Outtakes section with a few funny moments captured during the recording of dialog for the E3 demo. Check 'em out and stay tuned for more stuff down the road!
For even more audio bliss you should also check out the Halo Music Outtakes which contains some earlier recordings done by Marty during the development of the original score.
For more Halo 2 E3 Demo news, check out these prior stories:
If you've been living under a rock for the past few weeks and you still haven't seen the Halo 2 E3 demo, you can find links to download it here.