“RISE OF NATIONS” – QUESTIONS ANSWERED

Joseph ‘jojoe’ Weidinger, sent me the following note on Facebook and I thought there might be others who would find the information useful, too.

“Hi Duane, like countless others, I’ve grown up loving your game music, particularly rise of nations. As a young musician/composer myself, I found my way to LA after college and am taking a class in video game composition with gerard marino (god of war, spiderman) at ucla extension. It’s been neat learning about how the pitches work, loops, cues, etc. Of course RoN is almost exclusively non-loop 2.5 minute tracks with varying cultural influences.”

“I was wondering if you could shed just a bit of light on that whole experience: i.e. the pitch, the research, and maybe a bit on production (which sounds mostly sampled with a few soloists if I had to guess). Any insight would be appreciated!”

“I really take notes on the writing for this score: everything from the beautiful cello writing in “wing and a prayer,” the nostalgic “hearth,” and the mastery of ethnic writing. Also, RoN is kind of a slower, massive game in terms of pace, scope, graphics. I’ve always thought the music does an exceptional job at capturing this sense of massiveness and space (tracks like Revolver, Brazil come to mind).”

(RESPONSES FROM DUANE DECKER):

BACKGROUND
I’ve covered a lot about how I got to this point in previous blogs. Despite having some success with the “MechWarrior” franchise and conquering alien worlds for Disney, I was open to expanding in new directions. That’s when Big Huge Games (BHG), from Timonium, Maryland, was contracted to create a new game franchise for Microsoft Game Studios. Their creative team was led by Brian Reynolds, who was a former protégé of Sid Meier (of “Civilization” fame). When I heard that Microsoft was publishing their new game, I pitched the team to be their composer on the project. They accepted and we proceeded to create “Rise Of Nations” (RON).

When the project first started, the BHG team thought that authentic world music would be the music direction for the game. But I found this style to be invasive to the story line. It was very cool in its own way, but didn’t have the ability to support the story line that was being told. So I started composing music that would fill the requirements of representing the world, yet support the story.

PITCH
If I am reading you correctly, you are speaking about key signatures and how they relate to an interactive music score. As a player/viewer goes through a journey in a game, or any other entertainment experience for that matter, it is important to impart different feelings that can be conveyed in different ways. Changes in key signatures are a very subtle, but effective way to change the course of human emotion. It is well documented that certain key signatures and modes can evoke particular feelings. While scoring RON, I always kept this in mind and would reference what I had done in previous tracks.

2.5 MINUTE TRACKS
Just as pop music went through a phase where two and a half minute music tracks were the norm, I felt that a music track of that length would engage the listener while also not becoming overbearing or repetitive. A quick piece that leaves the listener wanting more is usually preferable to a longer piece that belabors the point. Yet there are certainly places where a longer piece is appropriate, especially when there is an emotional epiphany. Ultimately, there have been many times when I have felt that a long cue would lead the listener through an experience that is well worth the time.

LOOPS
Music loops originally started being used because of a lack of system memory. This is still true today, especially with games migrating to platforms with very little memory. Another alternative is to create very short pieces that can be triggered to reinforce what is taking place in the game. If you listen to my score from “Civilization Revolution,” you’ll hear a lot of short pieces, as well as full length tracks. That is because the game was being released on multiple platforms – Xbox 360, Playstation 3, Wii and Nintendo DS. You will hear all of the cues on Xbox and PS3, while only the short cues are in the other two. Because you never know where the story will take you, loops are also commonly used with sound effects. They can be three separate files, intro-loop-outro, or sometimes simply faded in and out. That way, the effect can be expanded or contracted to match an event in realtime.

RESEARCH
Since RON was the first project I did that required composing unfamiliar music styles, I did do a lot of research. Every region of the world has specific musical traits that convey a place and time. Instrumentation probably plays the biggest role. Real ethnic instruments have a tone and range that lend themselves to a particular style of music. Sometimes particular scales and modes are used. Some are very rhythmically oriented while others rely on simplicity to convey a mood. I did listen to world music as a guideline for some tracks. But at the end of the day, a lot of the soundtrack is my impression of these different places and times. Film composers tend to do this, as well.

PRODUCTION (SAMPLED / SOLOISTS)
You are correct in assuming that the soundtrack was a combination of sampled instruments and live instruments. I started by writing the entire score on keyboard and electronic percussion, using a bank of E-mu samplers and MOTU MachFive sampler within Digital Performer on the Mac. Once I had the electronic score complete, I met with Stan LePard to figure out what could be done on the modest budget that I was given. Anything that stood out as sounding synthesized, was replaced by live musicians. Simon James was the music contractor and found incredibly talented players, including many musicians from the Northwest Sinfonia, whose world-class collective work spans games, television, film and live concerts. I used the small studio at Microsoft Game Studios for the live sessions with Stan transcribing the score and co-producing the recording sessions. Tawm Perkowski was the tracking engineer. I then did the final mix and mastering in my studio using Digital Performer and Sound Forge.

CELLO (“Wing And A Prayer”)
There is an interesting side note to the cello solo in “Wing And A Prayer.” We were in the midst of recording the string section for all of the tracks. When it came time to record “Wing And A Prayer,” Simon asked, “Who wants the cello solo?.” Everyone in the room turned to Raj. I thought, OK, he must be pretty good if his fellow musicians automatically looked to him. As we recorded the track, my heart began to melt. It was everything that I had hoped the solo would become when played by a live soloist. I also found out later that his cello is very rare and insured for a million dollars. You can definitely hear Raj’s lifetime passion for music come out in that performance.

NOSTALGIA (“Hearth”)
Again, the session musicians really connected with this song and performed brilliantly. You also hear pitched wineglasses supporting the bagpipe melody.

MASSIVENESS AND SPACE (“Revolver” and “Brazil”)
I think the reason they work in that way is because they start out slow and quiet, build to a big crescendo and statement, then slowly go back to the mood where they started in the track. These broad ranges of dynamics wouldn’t work in a lot of projects, but certainly did for “Rise Of Nations.”

ETHNIC WRITING
I don’t know if I would consider myself a master at ethnic writing. What I do think I offer is music that conveys emotion in a lot of different musical styles. A lot of successful composers will tell you the same thing. Every project you do will have its own unique requirements and you will need to be able to fulfill them. I am challenged every day in my job at IGT. Every game has a different theme and requires a different musical style and approach. While I am usually juggling 4-6 games that are in production at the same time, that also means that I’m never bored or composing in only one musical style.

Thank you, Jojoe for the great questions! I hope I’ve been able to help answer at least a few of them. Best of luck to you on your musical journey. I look forward to seeing your name in the credits of tomorrow’s next great projects!

All the Best,
Duane

The 5.1 Original Soundtrack from “Rise Of Nations”

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