Scoring Bioware’s Mass Effect 2 Hit Video Game by “Wall of Sound”

The world of video game music has an important place for game creators and players alike. A great music and sound score really makes a great game even better, more exciting, more immersive and just plain a lot more fun to play. In BioWare’s “Mass Effect 2” game, composer Jack Wall and his collaborators used Spectrasonics Omnisphere and Stylus RMX extensively to craft the massive soundscape that players enter.

In a free wheeling interview with lead composer Jack Wall of Wall of Sound, and his composing collaborators Sam Hulick, David Kates and Jimmy Hinson, Spectrasonics delves into just what it takes to create a 2 and a half hour music score for a hit video game today.

Jack Wall told us, “With over 160 minutes of music, most of which was composed in just a few months, I knew I needed help to make the story and multitude of new characters have a fair amount of diversity, yet narrow our sonic palette just enough to keep the score cohesive. Omnisphere was one of those anchors, as we could then share patches for different purposes. I brought in Sam Hulick and David Kates who wrote with me for Mass Effect 1. Additionally, Jimmy Hinson, who had remixed several Mass Effect tracks with great skill and creative sonic goodness, joined the team.

For Mass Effect 2, there are several new characters in the game – all with specific skills and abilities that you, as the player, need to utilize later in order to finish the game – where you have to go out and find them and convince them to join you in your quest. I wanted to do specific and unique musical treatments on those levels, so I assigned complete levels to each of the other composers. They ran with those full levels, rather than having me assign specific tracks for them to work on. I wanted each of them to be able to stretch out and find the character in the music. Towards the end of the game’s production when I was working on the critical path music, some of their level music needed to get repurposed or re-written for a different level and they would work on those cues as well.

“I think the score works really well in the game – probably better than any other game I’ve ever worked on – and we are now planning on doing much more together as a team. You could say this incarnation of Wall of Sound was born from working on this title.”

The composers talked about the advantages of virtual instruments for scoring games. “I think the biggest advantage for these virtual instruments, other than the digital recall, is that the sounds themselves are often unique and the design of the instruments allows for customization to suit the track. I love “found sound” and doing custom recordings, but I also love the tweak factor in how you can take the wonderfully creative work of Spectrasonics’ Eric (Persing], Diego [Stocco] and the rest of the team and do things with it that wouldn’t be possible with physical instruments,” Wall said. “The instant feedback of being able to record a musical idea and hear it immediately is invaluable. I keep the virtual instruments as MIDI tracks as long as possible and I tend to mix as I go, so what I bounce at the end is pretty much the final product,” added Hulick.

When asked about Omnisphere’s use on Mass Effect 2, Walls recounts, “Omnisphere has become sort of the “big bucket of vibe” to throw onto the canvas from which you can then be inspired to write something with the right tone. Since those Omnisphere sounds are so complex, you might hear something there that you want to bring out with actual instruments and so I’ll write to that and pretty soon there’s just an entire piece of music that was born from that initial sound. Other times, there are patches like Adagio Expressivo that are so beautiful on their own, it’s actually great to use those at times without too many other sounds. And also, the rhythmic patches are really deep and customizable and can move in time with whatever changes I want to make to the score. Those are really handy. When we compose for games, we will often create numerous stems of a composed piece of underscore or theme music only to reuse parts of it in various other parts of the game. This is one way we can write 2-3 hours of music for a title that takes about 40 hours to play. We have to find the right places for silence, the right moments for exploring, tension, combat and interstitial music. Omnisphere is a great tool for helping to pare down to the core of a piece or ramp up to the highest levels of intensity.”

“I’d say much of the music I wrote was built around Omnisphere patches. For the darker tracks (explore or tension) there are so many beautifully creepy and mysterious patches and for me, the biggest obstacle was simply narrowing down which sounds I was actually going to use for a particular piece. Overall though, I loved that Omni has so many patches based on classic analog synths, and since the Mass Effect series is heavily inspired by music like Vangelis’s score to Blade Runner, that really came in handy,” says Hinson.

Stylus RMX played its part in the Mass Effect 2 score as well, “Stylus has become such an essential staple in my composing arsenal, that I simply can’t imagine facing a blank sequence without it being within my immediate reach. I used it for so many applications in Mass Effect 2, mostly to create pulse and tension. There are also times when I don’t use the loops, and simply find a single aspect of the loop and play it manually as part of a texture.” says Kates. Wall adds, “I used RMX for certain subtle rhythmic tension cues and to create and customize grooves that felt otherworldly. The trick with the Mass Effect series is always to be electronic but not sound like a remixer would sound. It still needs to be cinematic and sound like it’s coming from some other world, not necessarily a dance club. With the tools in RMX and re-tweaking the midi tracks, I was able to eliminate sounds that didn’t work in this way and add those that did.”

Kates has his on take on the sounds, “I consider myself a composer and not a technician. I am neither capable nor interested in messing around with sounds. I want a strong library that I can get to work with, and over the years, I have found myself trusting Spectrasonics to give me sounds that are sonically superb and creatively provocative.”

Wall concludes with a note about the company itself, “I’m always amazed at the level of service Spectrasonics give to the industry. The fact that most of the sounds ever post_date by Spectrasonics get rolled into the new versions is such a handy feature of your instruments and much appreciated.”

Check out the “Mass Effect 2” game website here

Visit “Wall of Sound” here