Halo: The Master Chief Collection updates the entire Halo series for Microsoft’s XBox One platform, dragging over a decade of audio technology into the future and necessitating a return to Skywalker Sound.
Story: John Broomhall
Nearly 15 years ago, Microsoft launched its first videogame console, the XBox. A landmark in game audio history, its dedicated sound hardware positioned it very favourably in the race for high-quality music, cinematic sound and credible dialogue in games. It even boasted real-time 5.1 encoding of in-game sound FX. Audio for games was coming of age.
The poster child for this audio revolution was Halo, whose original release showed just how engaging and powerful the aural experience of games could be, a point it proved through multiple releases in the beloved series, over two generations of Microsoft consoles.
But what about Halo fans kitting out their dens with Microsoft’s third, latest, and even more powerful videogame station — the XBox One? Enter Halo: The Master Chief Collection, an audacious ‘nu-gen’ homecoming for the franchise, billed as the ‘definitive Halo experience’ and featuring a re-mastered Halo 2: Anniversary, along with Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary, Halo 3, Halo 4, Halo: Nightfall (the live-action digital series made in partnership with Ridley Scott), and access to the Halo 5: Guardians Multiplayer Beta.
Paul Lipson, Senior Audio Director for 343 Industries/Microsoft Studios managed and directed the audio team through this gargantuan undertaking. Lipson: “I’ve been a huge Halo fan since the original release, Combat Evolved. An innovative and aesthetically groundbreaking title which transformed the way I look at game audio; a creative landmark. However, moving Halo 1-4 over to XBox One with a brand new unified UI and at 1080p/60 frames a second was a Herculean task. We were looking at four different integration schemes and audio engines that needed to play nice together. Meanwhile, Halo 2: Anniversary hitting its 10th anniversary was a massive project in itself, with a full update of all audio content — 198 minutes of all-new music, over 16,000 new sound and foley assets, and 58 minutes of all-new cinematics with bespoke post-production content.
“One of the coolest features in Halo 2: Anniversary is that we included both the legacy sound and the new sound — literally two complete sound trees running side-by-side. You can play the game in remastered mode and do all the fun things like dual-wielding weapons, then instantly switch to the legacy content running in perfect parallel. It’s quite astounding and really showcases the power of the XBox One and how far game audio has come in a decade.
“Looking back, I’m amazed at how much we accomplished. We never sacrificed audio quality — from the very first note recorded to the very last moment of mixing. Bringing all of this amazing talent together and focusing our collective energies to make something this cohesive is certainly a bright moment and a satisfying feeling.”
Lipson partnered with Skywalker Sound and multiple Grammy Award-winning engineer, Leslie Ann Jones, to record 85 members of the Skywalker Symphony Orchestra (players from the San Francisco Symphony and Ballet), 40 singers from the SF Opera Chorus, and 28 singers from the Boys Chorus. He also commissioned two new cues from guitarist/producer Misha Mansoor (Periphery, Animals As Leaders), and brought back guitar hero Steve Vai for work on the main themes.
Lipson: “We have a strong relationship with the American Federation of Musicians (the largest musicians’ union in North America), and we’ve had great success recording with them. They love games — and it’s fun to hear them come in after a night of playing Mahler or Rachmaninov and say, ‘wow, it’s so awesome to stretch out and play this amazing music’. The AFM players have been instrumental in helping us shape the gorgeous sound of our Halo soundtracks. Leslie Ann Jones and the Skywalker Sound team also make all the difference — their expertise coupled with one of the finest recording environments in the world really brings the music to life. I’m lucky to be working with such a talented group of people, and I think our results reflect that.”
MASTER CHIEF: PAUL LIPSON
AT: What drew you to this industry?
Lipson: I used to program machine code on my old Apple IIe and write little interactive audio programs using a Mockingboard card when I was a primary school student. I’d toured with bands and taught after earning my Masters degree from the New England Conservatory, but I knew I wanted to pursue games as a full time profession. I grew up idolising early trailblazers like Bill Budge, Richard Garriott, Nasir Gabelli, Jordan Mechner, and it just evolved into a full-time pursuit. I started my first game audio company in 1998 and haven’t really looked back since.
The evolution of the industry has been staggering over the past 20 years, and from an audio perspective, it’s going where many of us hoped it would. The size, scope, and production values of our scores and audio rival anything in entertainment — and the bar has been raised to that of a true art form.
AT: What’s the future of game audio and game scoring?
Lipson: There is a continued forward charge toward higher fidelity and an unabated evolution of how we express and capture our content, but we are now finding ourselves on the cusp of another technological renaissance that is going to create myriad opportunities for audio in games. The cloud is becoming a factor, platforms are evolving and becoming unified — many common technologies are harmonising in ways that we are just beginning to understand. All of this platform evolution needs gorgeous music and sound, which is great news for musicians, designers, integrators, and audio professionals around the globe.
THE ARBITER: BRIAN FIESER
AT: Sound Supervisor sounds like a broad title, what were you handling?
Feisher: I was responsible for designing and implementing new audio systems for Halo 2: Anniversary, creating and implementing sound effects, reverse engineering and learning the engine tools Bungie used over 10 years ago, organising and running field recording sessions, working closely with Paul Lipson and Sound Designer Paul Stoughton to establish the direction of the sound, providing audio post work for marketing, and working with our external partners.
AT: What are the key pieces of gear that can handle all those roles?
Feisher: For software designing and editing, I mostly use Pro Tools and Adobe Audition with many different plug-ins. I carry a Sony PCM D50 as a portable recorder on a daily basis. It usually depends on what it is that we are going to record, but for our larger sessions we’ll generally bring an array of recorders such as the Sound Devices 702s, DEVA, Sony PCM 100/D50, and microphones such as Sennheiser MKH 8040/40/418, Rode NT4, AKG D112, and a few others.
AT: What’s given you the leg up in the world of games?
Feisher: Being proficient in a DAW and familiar with editing sound through various platforms is a must. Besides needing to be passionate about the medium you are working on, I think playing a lot of games is critical to the job; it opens up your ears and mind to sound. You will identify more with the audience you’re creating content for, and start to understand the bigger picture; that placement of sound and creating sound for player feedback is more important to the art than editing and mixing any single sound on its own. I also think that being open to experimentation and even failure are key components. There are many times where I’ve gone into a recording session with grand ideas, only to have the material not turn out very well. Understanding that and being willing to try random experiments and new techniques will ultimately lead to more success.
RED TEAM: LENNIE MOORE
Composer & Orchestrator
AT: What was you contribution to the project?
Moore: I was Principal Orchestrator on both Halo: The Master Chief Collection and Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary collaborating with Paul Lipson and the team to fulfil the creative vision and update the orchestration to a larger size orchestra recorded in surround.
AT: Can you run us through the orchestration process?
Moore: Orchestration is the parsing out and balancing of individual parts within a given composition. In another form it could be called arranging. In essence, it’s about translating a composition into something that is playable by a group of live musicians. I’ll usually analyse a composition, make choices about how it will be distributed to separate parts within the orchestra, decide what colours or textures will be used in various sections and render all of this into a notation program like Sibelius; which allows me to layout how the full scores and parts should look. These are then printed out and distributed to the musicians performing on the recording sessions.
AT: How far would an orchestrator go in embellishing the original notation?
Moore: Only as far as the ‘boss’ allows! A great orchestrator follows the lead and intent of the composer. It is often a collaborative process where, after analysing the composition, the orchestrator will discuss with the composer how best to translate the original notation into something suitable for the orchestra. As an example, let’s say the composer used a full string section patch in his composition where he played ‘piano style’ (meaning with two hands only) into his computer for his demo. What do the Violin 1, Violin 2, Viola, Cello and Bass parts play? My role would be to translate the two-handed version into a five-part version for the strings — dividing all the melodies, chords and various compositional ideas into what makes the most sense for the musicians to play, while maintaining a balanced sound within the entire section.
CORTANA: LESLIE ANN JONES
Director of Music Recording & Scoring, Skywalker Sound
AT: Think ‘Skywalker’ and you tend to associate it with movies. How has its involvement in video games come about?
Jones: Skywalker has always been involved in audio post for films and now television. But the Scoring Stage has had a diverse clientele from the beginning: rock, jazz, classical and film scores. With the increased interest in videogame scores having a more cinematic sound with large, live orchestras it seemed to be a natural fit for us to start doing more of them. Plus many major videogame publishers are on the West Coast so the location was a factor as well. Our involvement comprises recording and mixing music for scores but our audio post side has also contributed to many games with ADR, foley, sound design and mixing, just like we do for films.
AT: Are there any special factors or differences associated with working on interactive music scores for videogames?
Jones: Videogame scores are an interesting hybrid between film scores where you have picture, sound effects and dialogue to pay attention to, and records where you just want to record a great sounding track. But videogame scores are also very different in they deal with levels of play versus what the player(s) hears. And also cinematics, which do have picture, effects and dialogue. My approach to recording doesn’t change much. I like to have things sound big and grand and get as much detail from the composer’s composition and orchestration as I can. But when I mix, then I can pay attention to how the music will be used and any balance adjustments that might be needed. Also videogame scores tend to take more advantage of recording sections of the orchestra separately because of the different levels of play and the sound needed for that.
AT: What makes the Skywalker scoring stage so legendary?
Jones: I like to think George’s [Lucas] vision of Skywalker Ranch and Skywalker Sound was to create a wonderful, warm, and relaxing environment in which to get one’s best work done. Our staff lives up to that and creates an atmosphere that says, ‘we’ll do whatever it takes to enable you to walk out with the best product possible’. I think those things, and of course a great sounding room are what makes Skywalker so special.
AT: What are the key pieces of tech you can’t live without?
Jones: My staff actually. They are all the best at what they do and because of that they enable me to work at my best without having to worry about anything. That and my Lexicon 224.
AT: What key skills and personal qualities do you think have led to you being at the helm of such a prestigious world-class scoring stage?
Jones: Paying attention to detail is very important as is multi-tasking (and I don’t mean checking Facebook at the same time as recording). But the most important thing is knowing when to say something and when not to. Most of the time it will be not. But my job is really twofold; recording and mixing, and running the scoring stage. Different skills are needed for each, but both require great people skills. The artist/client is paying the bill but also is the creative force behind the music and it’s important to remember it is their recording.
GRUNT WORK: BRIAN TRIFON/BRIAN & LEE WHITE
Project Managers & Soundtrack Co-producers
AT: What were your roles?
Trifon: We wore many hats. In addition to working on the score itself, we were also responsible for contracting, budgeting, editing, mixing, asset tracking, sequencing, etc.
AT: How do you manage all of those assets?
White: Every part of the score eventually found its way into Pro Tools for editing and surround mixing. With so many minutes of material and so many assets to organise and deliver, the new offline bounce workflow in Pro Tools 11 really saved us a ton of time. I was able to simultaneously print full surround mixes as well as surround stem splits all in one quick pass.
Trifon: We also used a little known piece of software called Keymap Pro from Redmatica to do the crossfading loop edits. The company got bought by Apple a while back and their software is no longer available, in fact it only works on an older version of OS X, but there is nothing else out there that can touch it for what we needed to accomplish.
AT: What skills are key for your success?
Trifon: I’d say the main skillset is problem solving and time management skills. Of course, none of it is possible without having excellent musical skills, supreme DAW chops/editing skills, and a refined musical and sonic aesthetic. You can’t be any kind of audio professional without those skills. However, technical skills and even musical skills alone aren’t enough. Making cool music is the easy and fun part! The challenging part is all of the unforeseeable roadblocks and setbacks that will inevitably come up during the course of a project.
White: Organisation is so critical in game audio. You literally have to track the status of thousands of assets, know how they relate and be able to quickly verify what state they are in. Has this cue been approved? Has that cue been mixed? Does this cue need a revision? In addition to using a purpose-built project management tool, we also tracked things in huge colour-coded spreadsheets that we could quickly glance at and see where things were. Even during the recording sessions at Skywalker, I had two laptops full of spreadsheets open in the control room, tracking what we still needed to record and where we were with our time.
Working with Steve Vai and Misha Mansoor was a blast. On top of each being incredible shredders in their own respective styles, they are both genuinely awesome people to work and hang out with. Steve and Misha both came out to the scoring sessions at Skywalker Ranch and it was like having two eras of guitar gods sitting under one roof, such a special time, we all had so much fun at those sessions.