Dust and Echoes
April 16, 2014 6:04 PM   Subscribe

The world of video game music has blossomed in recent years, enough to support live concert tours and bestselling albums. But while most such work is licensed or contracted out to third-party composers, a rare breed make their living at a single company, imbuing entire franchises with their unique sound. And apart from Nintendo's venerable Koji Kondo, there is perhaps no dedicated gaming composer more renowned than Martin O'Donnell. From humble beginnings writing the jingle for Flintstones Vitamins, O'Donnell and longtime collaborator Michael Salvatori joined developer Bungie in 1997, penning music for Myth, Oni, and most notably the Halo trilogy -- an iconic blend of sweeping orchestral bombast, haunting choirs, and electronic ambience that became one of the most acclaimed and successful gaming soundtracks of all time. O'Donnell also helmed Bungie's audio department, managing voice actors, sound effects, and an innovative dynamic music engine, and was most recently working with Paul McCartney on the score for the upcoming Destiny. So it came as a surprise today when it was announced MartyTheElder was being terminated without cause (flabbergasted reaction: HBO/DBO - NeoGAF - Reddit). With O'Donnell following Joseph Staten, Frank O'Connor, Marcus Lehto, and other Bungie veterans out the door, what might this mean for the company and its decade-long plan for Destiny?

Behind the Music interview (part 2)

Meet the Composers: Martin O'Donnell

Frankie takes the piss out of Marty in a 2006 studio tour

A comprehensive list of interviews and video interviews

Full soundtracks:
Myth - Oni - Halo - Halo 2 (Volume 2) - Halo 3 - ODST - Reach
Notable tracks:
Truth and Reconciliation Suite - original main theme

Ghosts of Reach - Won the Game Audio Network Guild award for Best Original Choral Song
Earth City - ditto, for Best Original Instrumental Song

Mombasa Suite - soundtrack to Halo 2's 2004 E3 demo and the retro-futuristic slums of Old Mombasa

More high-energy pieces: MJOLNIR Mix (with Steve Vai) and Unyielding

Or gravitas: High Charity Suite - Unforgotten - Heavy Price Paid

Siege of Madrigal - A track from Myth often hidden away in future games

Finish the Fight - Halo 3's announcement trailer score
Wake Me When You Need Me - Halo 3's final scene

Deference for Darkness - The moody, noirish, saxophone-accented ambience for ODST's rainy nighttime streets

Early Destiny music samples
BONUS: The Odyssey, a three-part post-rock jazz fusion epic composed by Incubus and RHCP's Flea for Halo 2
posted by Rhaomi (28 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
This post narrowed rather quickly from the first sentence, but I would be remiss if I didn't take the opportunity to mention that MeFi's own speicus is an up-and-coming video game music composer.
posted by carsonb at 6:25 PM on April 16, 2014 [5 favorites]

Whoa, I just got terminated without cause like a couple of weeks ago and I aspire to make music for video games one day, so this fascinating and informative post couldn't be better timed (since I've still got a few idle days to waste
before starting my new job)... Now to start reading all these links...
posted by saulgoodman at 6:28 PM on April 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

For my money, ODST has one of the best game soundtracks out there, a perfect complement for the game (that is, without question, the best entry in the Halo series.)
posted by mhoye at 6:31 PM on April 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

I am reminded a bit of Jack Wall just vanishing from the Mass Effect 3 soundtrack. His work on the first two games was great--the tracks for the last ME2 mission are still among my favorites.

Basically stopped playing Bungie games once they focused on the X-Box, but I really liked the Myth soundtrack as well.
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 7:08 PM on April 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

My favorite Marty track:

Covenant Dance (from Halo: Combat Evolved) ... (Halo 1 :)

Groovy, tribal, epic, electronic, and melodic all in one.
posted by 3FLryan at 7:20 PM on April 16, 2014

I do like Covenant Dance, but my favorite from Halo 1 is Under Cover of Night. Oddly reminiscent of Robotech background music and certain '80s pop songs, but moves in a different direction.
posted by A dead Quaker at 7:34 PM on April 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

I still get a thrill at the appropriately named Rock Anthem For Saving The World.

But I love game music, so...
posted by mephron at 7:40 PM on April 16, 2014

If he is the guy responsible for the dwarfs voice in myth the fallen Lords, then he's brought me great joy.

what now...
posted by davejay at 8:53 PM on April 16, 2014

My favorite track, Peril from Halo 2. Strains of Enya and New Age music, it was so perfectly at odds with the action on screen.
posted by tarpin at 9:19 PM on April 16, 2014

What do the cool kids think of Jeremy Soule?
posted by bobloblaw at 9:22 PM on April 16, 2014 [3 favorites]

What do the cool kids think of Jeremy Soule?

Love him beyond words! His FFVI: Squaresoft Variation makes me so happy!

I had the absolute pleasure of meeting many video game music luminaries about 8 years ago - Uematsu, O'Donnell, Soule, Kondo, Yamaoka, Mitsuda, Jason Hayes, Angela Aki - after a Play! Symphony concert. They were all a delight, but Soule and Hayes' gentle ribbing of Marty O'Donnell was the best.

I was collecting signatures for Younger Monster, who had just turned 10, and mentioned his age. O'Donnell was mildly horrified that a 10 year-old was playing Halo. Soule and Hayes, upon hearing that he was also a fan of Oblivion and StarCraft, told O'Donnell to smile, the kid clearly had great taste in music. Still makes me smile.
posted by MissySedai at 10:00 PM on April 16, 2014 [4 favorites]

I have a deep love of video game music. Some highlights:

Final Fantasy VI - A Fistful of Nickels (Shadow's Theme) (From the generally excellent FF6 OCRemix album.)
Final Fantasy VII - BadAzz (Sephiroth's Theme).
posted by effugas at 10:56 PM on April 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

Winter Contingency is one of my favourites from Reach.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 1:32 AM on April 17, 2014

Bungie COO and board member Pete Parsons touched on the controversy a few hours ago:
"At Bungie we don't take that kind of thing lightly. We don't make those decisions lightly. We're a team that's committed to making an amazing game set in an amazing universe. At this time we won't be commenting any further on it."
An anonymous Reddit commenter claiming to work at Bungie alleged it was money issues:
Okay. So I can't give out too much detail here, but I will let you know what I know. Marty was a contracted employee, he didn't just get a fee for each game he produced. Marty had received a significant raise in the last few years, but was now asking for another. This created tension between him and the board (some of whom already felt he was overpaid). A verbal argument ensued recently between Marty and a member of the board. Shortly there after he was let go. So there was certainly 'cause' but one that a lot of us felt could be worked through. But money talks. The board feels they can get someone for cheaper, and without the drama, that will have a better ROI.

So basically it seems that tensions rose to a breaking point, one the board felt they couldn't work past, or didn't want to deal with, so they let Marty go. I'm not saying it was right (I don't think it was), but that is the situation.
Meanwhile, O'Donnell's daughter took to the Bungie.net forums:
don't even know everything that happened, I just know that I've closely observed Bungie shift and change dramatically over the last decade. Cool thing though, my dad has been consistent. He has consistently worked hard and consistently cared about making the player experience as cool as possible.

Many times I would come home from school and he would be testing out a video game, making notes on what he liked and didn't like, or even in the middle of developing a theory on how things could be improved for the player. I've seen him do extensive research on how music affects emotions and I know he always adds in little details that are important. My dad is a brilliant video game producer and music composer/producer. This change will not ever change who he is, because from the beginning he has always been consistent; that is one thing I know about my dad. Oh, and he loves the fans, that is another thing. I'm in tears reading about how his music affected people's lives. Thank you to the bnet community and halo music fans <3 *Edit: As requested, I've sent this to my dad, so he will be reading the responses.*
Ex-Bungie game designer Jaime "30 seconds of fun" Geisemer vented at Bungie Twitter:
"Destiny - from the creators of Halo (that we didn't fire.)"
An in-depth Polygon feature from last year hints at possible tensions:
There's another person who gets an office. Actually, his whole team works apart, secluded down a corridor. Partly because of the nature of their work, it's true. But also in part because out of a team of semi-anonymous team players, he's the only famous one.

It's not Marty O'Donnell's fault, really. Games take a team to orchestrate. Music doesn't. And then there's the awards. Don't forget the awards. He can't really be faulted for that either. He didn't award them to himself. That Rolling Stone (among others) considered his work the best example of video game soundtracking in history can't be laid at his feet, really. What was he supposed to do? Make less amazing music?

Still, it irks. Everyone plays nice, for sure. Bungie is, after all, a workplace and a team and a good one of both. There is no rancor. Not out where we can see it anyway, but I get a whiff of it here and there. I can smell the irk.

"One of the things that I think really gets [Bungie co-founder] Jason Jones's goat sometimes is that there is still one person who can make a contribution that's outsized, and that's Marty O'Donnell," Chris Butcher tells us. "There's only one composer."
You can see some of this from studio head Jason Jones in the original Halo 2 documentary:
"Marty makes pretty much everything we do twice as good, and that makes me really angry because he's just about the only individual who has that level of contribution to the team... but I would never say that to him."
It's just so weird seeing O'Donnell featured as recently as December in promotional material -- watch him talk about working with McCartney on the Destiny OST with co-writer Salvatori. The "Music of the Spheres" collaboration they mention is also definitely interesting -- I've heard suggestions it could reach Smile Session levels of sought-after-ness now that it's almost certainly not seeing the light of day.
posted by Rhaomi at 2:03 AM on April 17, 2014 [3 favorites]

There are a lot of very talented composers and musicians out there, and this is a big, relatively new market that pays (some) real money. I'm not surprised that there is an embarrassment of soundtrack riches.
posted by thelonius at 3:33 AM on April 17, 2014

What do the cool kids think of Jeremy Soule?

He's damn good. As is Jesper Kyd.

I like Matt Uelmen, but I don't like how much the Torchlight 2 music sounds exactly like Diablo 2.
posted by Foosnark at 6:02 AM on April 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

It's quite shocking as O'Donnell really did provide such a vital component for Bungie's games and (arguably) there's not many composers that can match him in the gaming world. The Halo soundtracks are some of the very few CD's I snapped up simply on the strength of the music.

(That said, I still to this day have no idea what that Incubus noodling nonsense was all about).
posted by panboi at 7:39 AM on April 17, 2014

"Marty makes pretty much everything we do twice as good, and that makes me really angry because he's just about the only individual who has that level of contribution to the team... but I would never say that to him."

OH GOD THIS FUCKING INFURIATES ME, let me think out loud for a second (on preview, 2 goddamn hours) about why.

First: My job description is the same as Marty's was -- basically "in-house full-time audio lord / composer / system architect-y nerdwad / mysterious cave dweller who nobody ever really sees around the office" at a much, much smaller game studio, which is nevertheless the subject of occasional media coverage.

I will never get over the uniquely uncomfortable feeling I get when I'm the only person out of a 50-person team (all of whom are just as good at their jobs, and work just as much overtime) mentioned by name in reviews. I'm overjoyed to have achieved a (comparatively infinitesimally) tiny amount of success, but it fucking sucks a LOT to be "that guy" when you're just another neckbeard at the office trying to hit milestone deliveries and fix bugs.

But unless you're dealing with a developer or producer with serious name recognition (either indie stars like Phil Fish, Ed McMillen, or at a bigger studio, producers like Jade Raymond, etc) the most likely call-out is going to be the composer, even if they're not that well-known. This baffles me and inspires all kinds of pondering about the actual role of music in games, but it's consistently the case. If I were a reviewer, I'd call out effects artists (particles, explosions, magic stuff, etc) by name, because they're MY heroes and I am astonished by how much their work adds to a game.

So, I've had actual nightmares about working for a boss like Jason Jones with that sort of simmering just-under-the-surface half-joking-but-not-really tall-poppy mentality going on. Sound people are arguably the most autonomous and lowest-turnover segment of the game industry (job listings for audio are ... infrequent) and a lot of what musicians in particular do can often be poorly understood and unstructured. Nobody even knows where I am half the time, and then 20 tracks of music magically show up out of nowhere. So there's definitely a lot of potential for inter-departmental resentment, especially if it seems like music is getting all the media attention.

Luckily, my studio head doesn't get "really angry" about anything, he's one of the kindest and most laid-back people I've met. When only a couple team members get interviews or awards or whatever, his reaction is: "FAR OUT! Interviews and awards! Woooo!" and the enthusiasm is contagious. A good boss should work to minimize resentment, not INSTIGATE it. I hope wherever Marty goes after this, it's less like his old job and more like mine, only with quintuple the salary and 100x the budget. Assuming it's even possible for a big studio to not be fucked up and horrible.

What do the cool kids think of Jeremy Soule?

Thought he was waaaaay overrated until Skyrim. I always respected his skill as a composer, but as a GAME composer, I feel like Skyrim was where his music stopped being "drop-in generically pleasant underscore" and started actually kicking ass along with the visuals, while still being as complex and thoughtful as his earlier stuff. I'd call myself a fan now.

And yeah, Jesper Kyd is amazing, and that's partially because he's an oldschool demoscener, so he's pretty much superhuman. His early work on Sega Genesis was among the best FM game music in history, right up there with Koshiro's Streets of Rage scores. Going from 6-voice polyphony to an entire orchestra involves completely different skill sets, but Kyd has such a good ear for melody and harmony, and is so technically-minded, that his music made the transition brilliantly.

(NOT PAID ENDORSEMENTS, I've never actually met any of the three composers mentioned here, I shook Marty's hand at GDC once but I'm pretty sure only one of us remembers that, haha)

(I HAVE, HOWEVER, MET MEFI'S OWN SPEICUS, and if that dude isn't a millionaire soon, there is no justice in the world.)
posted by jake at 7:58 AM on April 17, 2014 [10 favorites]

man, what an upset. Halo 1 had one of my favorite OSTs in the whole series because I think it was mostly synth, whereas the later games sounded more orchestral. Love me some synth.
posted by rebent at 8:22 AM on April 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

Halo 1 was definitely the best in the series.
posted by zscore at 9:25 AM on April 17, 2014

This baffles me and inspires all kinds of pondering about the actual role of music in games, but it's consistently the case.

There's no other part of a video game that you can extract and enjoy separately, or reliably point to as being one person's work.
posted by mhoye at 10:34 AM on April 17, 2014 [3 favorites]

This baffles me and inspires all kinds of pondering about the actual role of music in games, but it's consistently the case.

All YouTube links:

Exhibit A. (The sound balance is very heavily to dialogue, but what I mean becomes obvious at the very end.).
Exhibit B. (Happens to be one of my favorite tracks in the entire soundtrack, too.)
Exhibit C. (Music is pretty much all you have here, and all you need apart from the couple of cue words. It is really no coincidence that this is where I first started leaking at the eyes when I saw the movie for the first time.)
Exhibit D. (More dialogue, but this is very early on in the game and makes you sit up and take notice.)
Exhibit E. (The special features on LaserDisc of this one played this fight without the music, and the impact was anviliciously obvious.)
Exhibit F. (This one has trilogy-destroying plot spoilers, so if you ever want to play Mass Effect, beware; the music's effect is very subtle, but as real as the example above.)

On the one hand, I may be cheating by choosing a game that strongly depends on the cutscene and the resulting movie-kinship; on the other hand, that was the most direct way. Now think about the world map trips in the Final Fantasy games in silence or Mario anything without a melody. If you're telling a visual story, music helps, and for better or for worse a century of movies have trained us that way as well. Some of us are more susceptible than others, and that's a weakness I'll cheerfully cop to.

And on preview, there's also what mhoye said.

(Sorry the first two links have the wrong Shepard, I didn't have time to search.)
posted by seyirci at 12:55 PM on April 17, 2014

Soule also did the soundtrack to Total Annihilation, which was one of the most over-the-top things ever and I loved it.

Other soundtracks that help make a game that might not have been mentioned yet
- Dawn of War II (which has the best track name ever, "Show Me What Passes For Music Among Your Misbegotten Kind")
- Homeworld (bonus: end track by Yes is SO GOOD and all games need prog rock anthems over the end credits, I have spoken)
- XCOM, specifically the team selection music
- Katamari Damacy, which is a charming game by itself but becomes a whole new level once the soundtrack kicks in
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 1:01 PM on April 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

Yes, TA had a fantastic soundtrack and it was quite interactive for the time. I've been on a CastleVania binge lately and that's another series with fantastic music. The soundtrack of the first games is iconic and Michiru Yamane is quite versatile.

The love for the Myth soundtrack makes me happy. It's a shame that the board seems to think the contribution of a composer who's been with them for ages is interchangeable.
posted by ersatz at 4:03 PM on April 17, 2014

Blizzard's Glenn Stafford was also responsible for Warcraft 2 (which is brilliant despite its technological restraints), Starcraft, Warcraft 3, and WoW.
posted by ersatz at 4:11 PM on April 17, 2014

From Bungie's Weekly Update:
No Mail Sack this week. We know what you want to ask us. We wish we could help you make sense of what’s going on. Sometimes saying nothing is the only right thing to do. Sometimes saying nothing is the hardest thing to do.

We’re sorry for that. We know that you care a lot about our shared history. We do too. It stings to read some of the more charged, emotional responses, but we understand, and we are committed to focusing on our shared future. We believe it will be bright.

Every end is a new beginning. See you starside.
(Also, longtime community guru Claude "Louis Wu" Errera did a mini-feature with O'Donnell yesterday.)
posted by Rhaomi at 10:16 PM on April 18, 2014

Going from 6-voice polyphony to an entire orchestra involves completely different skill sets, but Kyd has such a good ear for melody and harmony, and is so technically-minded, that his music made the transition brilliantly.

The stuff he did for Assassin's Creed was probably the first time I really thought about video game music as music and not just as interesting shit that goes on in the background.
posted by elizardbits at 5:15 PM on April 30, 2014

The stuff he did for Assassin's Creed was probably the first time I really thought about video game music as music and not just as interesting shit that goes on in the background.

Hitman 2 for me, but similar. He's very good at what he does and my interest perks up whenever I see his name mentioned in a project.
posted by figurant at 11:15 PM on April 30, 2014

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