We recently had the chance to interview Richard Beddow at The Creative Assembly to find out more about the music of Empire: Total War!
Q: When did the composing for Empire start?
Composing stated in the summer of 2008 and was completed towards the end of November in time for us to meet the deadlines to record our score live with the orchestra.
Q: What were the main challenges in the music production for Empire?
We approached the music in a somewhat ‘Hollywood’ fashion, that is, we decided early on to feature orchestra, have an epic cinematic score to really get across the sense of size and scale of a game as large as Empire and to support the battles with the necessary level of might within the music. So, with that in mind the most important thing then lay in getting these qualities in to all the music including those of the other cultures. While this is fine for western sounding music, it can be more tricky to get the right level of fusion when dealing with other cultures, for instance fusing western orchestral music with eastern instruments and scales and still maintaining the overall drive and sound that we’re after from the music. It was important to incorporate as much ethnic material as possible to give the right cultural flavour but while still retaining the orchestral and ‘Hollywood’ feel.
The above approach was applied to each music track and once these were complete the next challenge was to prepare all the music from the MIDI mock-ups in to a format for us to record the music with a live orchestra. Prepared MIDI files were created and then sent to the orchestrator in order to get the printed parts ready for the musicians.
Q: During the composing process do you write to in-game footage, FMV or storyboards?
A combination. The in-game footage helps to give you a sense of the games atmosphere and also allows you to try your music against the visuals to perfect the style. The storyboards were used essentially for the movie sequences in the game, mostly for the Road To Independance missions. The graphics and final renders for these movies were not complete when we needed to start the composing process, so due to the fact that we had internal deadlines and those with the orchestra and I needed to approve the music as soon as possible, get it to our orchestrator and printed before the recording, so we had to use static storyboard movies with placeholder voice over to write the music to. Far from ideal but doable. The shorter movie sequences such as the win and lose movies were almost fully complete visually so these were used to compose to in their case.
Q: What are the main differences between writing music for cutscenes and writing for the in game battles and what are the challenges faced with each?
Well, the cutscenes are miniature movies so we’ll obtain digital videos or storyboards as mentioned above and write to them as if its a film. We’ll contour the tempo, dynamics and melodic shape to fit perfectly to the onscreen drama. With in-game music, you obviously have no ‘locked’ visuals to synchronize the music to as it is constantly changing, so effectively what you end up writing is music that gives a mood for the battle but is not restricted by the visuals. Additionally with in-game music, due to the amount of repetition the music will undergo you have to play it a little safer in terms of how melodic you make it as the more thematic you make the material the more chance it has of grating on the end user over extended play. With the cutscenes, they will be viewed only once in a while or maybe only once so you can be very thematic but you have to keep in mind fitting it to the dialogue if it is present and not overpowering it. Much in-game music also has to be designed to loop, for instance battle music. We have to make sure that the material in the printed score around the looping areas works both musically and in terms of dynamics to get a smooth match when it loops. Other than that, we will actually want to create as much unity as possible with material used in-game with that in the cutscenes so where possible we will re-use or adapt our themes/styles where appropriate.
Q: Where do you being the composing process with a project as large as Empire?
Before we can start the composing process we need to know where music will feature in the game, what styles we’ll require and how and when they will be played in the game. So we simply start by answering those questions.
The basic idea for the campaign music looked back to how music was used in the original Total War game Shogun. In Shogun, campaign music was almost used as a sound effect, providing flourishes of musical colour on various oriental instruments, effectively small melodic music phrases or effects. This approach allowed plenty of breathing space when playing on the campaign map which could literally last days. In those types of circumstances the last thing you want is a looping background track to irritate the player. The Shogun approach allowed music to be used in an almost relaxing and calming manner. So, for Empire we decided to revisit the method used in Shogun and expand upon it a little. Firstly, as Empire is a game which stretches across continents not just Japan we had to look to record instruments which covered all the core cultures featured in the game – in essences instruments to represent Western, Indian, Arabic and Tribal cultures. Secondly we would look to record all of the instruments live to maintain a consistently high listening experience. Thirdly we would develop a playback system in the game that would not only play music from the appropriate culture when you position the camera over the part of the map that the culture originates but would also pick at random phrases of music to play for that culture in order to keep the listening experience interesting. For instance you could position the camera over an Arabic settlement and you could be listening to the haunting melodies of a Duduk, then shortly followed by phrases performed on a Lauto.
Recording all of this material provided us with approx. 70 minutes of material just for the campaign map alone.
The other large area of game play is the in-game battles, which in the case of Empire are featured on both land and sea. This area of the game requires a lot of music too, in the order of 60 mins. Much like in the campaign the music was divided in to the same cultural sets with a slight addition in that naval battles have their own music styles to differentiate them from the other music.
The basic idea with the music system for the battles is that when a battle is initiated on the campaign map, depending where you initiate the battle in the world, the music that will play during the battle will be based on the originating culture for that area i.e. if you start a battle in London you will hear Western battle music. Each actual battle consists of two pieces of music, the deployment (or tension) music and the battle (or attack) music. As you start to deploy your army the tension music will start, it will continue until the game detects that the battle state has been initiated. Once this state is reached the music will slowly crossfade from the tension music in to the battle music which will loop for the duration of the battle.
The final area of music usage in the game is with the in-game movies. Here again as with the rest of the game we have cultural variants of music to match the visual variants of the videos, but in addition Empire features the Road To Independence quest which also required a variety of cinematic sequences and musical accompaniment, this time building an American flavour in the music.
Q: A new feature is that units have musicians on the battlefield, can you tell us a little more about this?
One of the important roles of musicians on the battlefield was to relay orders to their unit. It was this aspect specifically that we chose to focus on. So, I spent some time with one of our designers Jamie Ferguson discussing what types of orders they’d need to relay in the game and once I had the list I quickly notated some ‘musical orders’ together such as Halt, Fire At Will, March for both the snare drummers and the buglers. I then brought in the talents of some live musicians to record the audio for these orders and the outcome was fantastic as once the orders were integrated in to the game it transformed the level of realism in the battles. While we did not stick to authentic musical phrases for the orders, the effect is the same in the game nonetheless. In the game hearing the enemy orders can be an important clue as to what an enemy is doing!
Q: Empire’s score features music performed with a Symphony Orchestra and also digital samples. Can you tell us a little bit about this?
We recorded approx. 60 minutes of the score live and we had about 20+ minutes remain completely as digital. In addition, some tracks were enhanced with additional digital samples, most notably the Indian, Arabic and Tribal battles which featured a lot of sampled ethnic melodic and percussive instruments.
Q: How do you know the tracks will work properly in the game before you record the orchestra?
We simply create electronic MIDI mock-up versions of each track. This is actually a very important process because these tracks are fully orchestrated so it allows us the ability to hear very accurately the music and make any decision on changes before we record any notes live. It also allows us the opportunity to try out concepts in the game and refine the style.
Q: When realizing the score with an orchestra, does this alter the composing process as opposed to just using digital samples for the music?
The composing process itself largely stays the same, what alters is the amount of editing you’ll do to create a realistic MIDI mock-up if using the samples alone in the final mix. Mock-ups can be very big demanding jobs, and often due to the limits of using samples you’ll sometimes find yourself having to layer many articulations, adding lots of volume shaping, tweaking reverb settings to simulate a hall environment or other such procedures in order to make the music sound more realistic when played back with samples.
Q: Where/when did you record the live orchestral score?
We recorded the orchestral music with THE SLOVAK NATIONAL SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA . It was recorded by sound engineer Peter Fuchs at the Slovak Radio Concert Hall, in Bratislava during the first week of December 2008.
Q: Can you tell us a little about the recording process.
The Slovak Radio Concert Hall was huge, it a created a lovely lush sound with the orchestra.
To capture this engineer Peter Fuchs used 46 microphones strategically placed around the hall, between and in front of the players. The close string mics were fed into a Yamaha DM 2000, the remaining microphones were fed into Grace Design 802R, Millennia HV-3D, ASP-008 and Digidesign PRE pre-amps and recorded in to a ProTools HD rig via Apogee converters.
Each piece of music had a click track that would be fed via headphones to each musician and the conductor to ensure accurate timing in the music. This was important because we needed to add a fair amount of digital samples back to some of the tracks later in the mixing. Then one by one we’d work our way through each piece of music until we had recorded everything we needed.
The score was recorded over 2 days after which we began preparation for mixing the music.
Peter then flew back to the UK to join me in our in-house studio to mix the music. We then spent 3 days mixing, again using a ProTools HD rig.
Q: What was the most enjoyable part of the music production?
I always enjoy the collaborative process, working with other musicians, composers and the rest of the orchestral team who helped us put together and record the score. There are so many cogs in the process and each one helps make the finished recording what it is.
Without doubt though, the single most enjoyable aspect is when you hear the music come alive through the orchestra. When you have spent months writing, listening and working with the music in MIDI format, to then go and listen to it live with 80 musicians giving it their all is truly a moving experience.
Q: Are there any plans for a Soundtrack release, a lot of reviews have commented on the strength of the music?
Actually there is, we have been very pleased with the response to the music and I’m sure Total War fans will be happy to hear that we are planning a commercial soundtrack release from the game which should be available in the not too distant future.