Opportunities for AFM musicians continue to increase in the ever-expanding world of video games. No where is this more true than at the legendary Skywalker Ranch—home to Skywalker Sound—in the San Francisco Bay area of California. In July of 2008, 51 AFM musicians gathered at the ranch to record the score for the game Gears of War 2, which will be released November 7.

 Musicians ‘Gear’ Up at Skywalker Ranch

Opportunities for AFM musicians continue to increase in the ever-expanding world of video games. No where is this more true than at the legendary Skywalker Ranch—home to Skywalker Sound—in the San Francisco Bay area of California. In July of 2008, 51 AFM musicians gathered at the ranch to record the score for the game Gears of War 2, which will be released November 7. The score, a rich mix of strings, brass, percussion, and synthesized elements, provides a perfect backdrop for a story that is both complex and gritty. Says Steve Jablonsky, the score’s composer and a member of Local 47 (Los Angeles), "This is a heavy story—a great story for any composer to work with. It has some really juicy details."

Gears of War 2 picks up six months after the original Gears of War, following the reluctant war hero Marcus Fenix on his mission to defeat the evil Locust Horde and save humankind from all-out destruction. Nearly all of the score on the new game is original, though designers did want to preserve one piece of music from the first game, a theme known as "The Locust Riff." "The Locusts have their own music that kind of introduces them whenever they come onto the scene," explains Jablonsky. "I was asked to put my own spin on it, but to keep it recognizable."

Jablonsky’s efforts—his first as sole composer on a video game project—have resulted in a score that is as compelling as the story it accompanies. This comes as no surprise to Caesar Filori, an audio director with Microsoft, which publishes the game. Filori and his team sought out Jablonsky, a respected film and television composer whose work includes scores for the films Transformers and Texas Chainsaw Massacre as well as the TV series Desperate Housewives, specifically because they believed he could deliver the sound they were after.

"I couldn’t have been more excited to get Steve for this project," Filori says. "He has a tremendous talent for identifying the emotional undercurrent of a story, and then building on it and bringing it to life musically. Gears has a signature sound that Steve captured perfectly."

Putting the Pieces Together

Though recording took place in July, the first plans were laid in January 2008, when Jablonsky began corresponding with Janet Ketchum of Local 6 (San Francisco, CA), AFM session contractor for the project. Says Ketchum, getting such an early start provided a number of benefits.

"Because we had so much time to discuss the session, I was able to get a very good sense of what Steve was looking for in terms of orchestration and instrumentation," she says. "His score concentrates on the lower end—lots of strings and brass—which is a common orchestration for video games. We were able to put together a great group of musicians within the budget we had available to us, and the overall sound is really impressive."

Still, few composers are able to plan months in advance for a session, before a single note has been written or the game is even completed. Jablonsky says he is no exception, and only so much could be accomplished in those first conversations.

"Early on in the process I saw some artwork and examples of how the game would look," he recalls. "But I’m more used to scoring a scene, having a story to follow, so once I saw some of the cinematic elements and heard some of the actors’ voices, I was able to start writing. That’s when it all came together for me."

"The collaboration with Steve worked really well; he’s very organized and efficient," says Ketchum. "And then, of course, we had Tim Davies conducting. I love having Tim on sessions; he’s got a very good ear for orchestration."

Davies, a member of Local 47, describes the score as "energetic," with "great brass themes and cool riffs in the strings." He says that conducting an orchestra for a video game score requires a specific approach, because the music is often closer to that played by a rock band than the classical music most orchestral players are used to.

"The music is more rhythmic, and everyone is playing all the time," he says. "There are no quiet moments or romantic love scenes to fill the time, and it can be a challenge for the musicians when they’re playing so hard. As a conductor, my job is to foster a different attitude, to encourage them to let their hair down and play like rock musicians for a bit."

The Skywalker Sound Experience

Everyone involved in the session agrees that the experience of recording at Skywalker Ranch is exceptional. From the beauty of the ranch’s grounds to the state-of-the-art sound quality offered by its studios, the facility leaves nothing to be desired.

"Going to Skywalker is great; everyone there is very accommodating," says Davies. "And when you combine one of the best studios available with players who are talented, energetic, and just really into the work, you take things to a whole new level."

Leslie Ann Jones, director of music recording and scoring at Skywalker Sound, served as the recording engineer on the Gears of War 2 session. She says that there seems to be a greater appreciation for video game music now than there has been in the past, and that she’s pleased by how well received the Skywalker Ranch has been by musicians playing on game scores.

"I think Skywalker Sound pleasantly surprises people," she says. "Many are struck by the large sound the room offers. It’s a big orchestra sound that is more in line with a traditional film score than what you might expect from a video game."

Plans for a third installment in the Gears of War series have not been announced, but Jablonsky is excited about the prospect. "It’s such a great franchise; I hope they continue with it," he says. "And if they do, I would love to be involved."

In the meantime, Ketchum hopes that projects at Skywalker Sound will continue to be made available to AFM musicians. "I’ve been working with Skywalker for 13 years, and it’s always a great experience," she says. "It’s one of the few places on the west coast that can offer all that it does. And besides, it’s absolutely beautiful there!"