Special: An interview with Stephen Rippy, the composer of the Halo Wars soundtrack.
series has not only left an indelible impact on the world of video games, but in a surprisingly short amount of time its music has come to enjoy the sort of fame formerly reserved for Japanese franchises like Super Mario Bros.
and Final Fantasy
. Halo and its sequels have already spawned four briskly-selling soundtrack albums and a 5-disc collector's set, and it's nearly impossible to find a game music concert taking place somewhere in the world these days that doesn't
feature music from the series.
Of course, all of that puts a fair bit of pressure on anyone who is tasked with expanding the franchise's musical legacy, as was recently the case for composer Stephen Rippy with the recently released Halo Wars
. "I believe my first thoughts about the music were something along the lines of, 'wow, there's a lot to do!'" he laughs. "I'll confess to a certain amount of denial, though ? otherwise it would have been easy to get tripped up in the expectations for the project."
The Stars at Night
Rippy was the lead composer at Ensemble Studios in Dallas, Texas for over a decade, lending the popular Age of Empires
games (including Age of Mythology
) their distinctive sound. But for Halo Wars, Rippy needed to create music that would match Halo's style while at the same time still fitting the particular needs of a real-time strategy game.
"The major goal I had for the music of this game was to make players feel like they're in the same universe as the previous Halo titles, while at the same time pushing those edges out a little bit," says Rippy. "The tougher part was trying to nail that original sound, so with that in mind, I listened to the Halo soundtracks quite a bit before I started writing. In the end, I think there's a pretty good balance ? hopefully fans of the previous work will agree!"
Halo Wars' main theme in particular exemplifies his approach with an emotional introduction to the game's Spirit of Fire theme before breathing new life into the iconic "monk theme" from the original Halo. "That track was an interesting challenge in that it ? more than any other piece of music ? needed to announce that this is a Halo game," Rippy notes.
"To that end, I thought it would be a good idea to put the famous monk theme right up front and then introduce something new afterward. So I did that only to realize that I'd pushed it too far towards 'familiar' and robbed the game of its own identity. Instead, I switched the sections around to the way they are now, and that seemed to hit the right spot. Aside from the Halo references, I wanted the theme to be big and just a little tragic, which I think reflects the tone of our story."
Gear of Wars
This new main theme also illustrates the mix of orchestra and synthesizers along with other elements like guitars, piano, and choir that go a long way toward tying Halo Wars to its predecessors. For many of the synthesizer parts, Rippy used a Moog Little Phatty that he bought shortly after joining the Halo Wars team with the idea of using it as a catalyst to get started. The idea "worked so well, I'll have to do it for every future project," he laughs. "Don't tell my wife?"
But aside from the purposely electronic elements, everything else was performed live. "To me, using live players is always preferable when it's possible," says Rippy. "In the case of Halo Wars, the orchestra provides a nice contrast to all of the electronic elements in the score and hopefully adds some extra emotional resonance."
"There were several stages of recording for almost all of the cues in the game," he continues. "The first instruments to be tracked were the ones I could play myself ? mostly synths, guitars, and a variety of percussion. That material was then taken to Prague, where the orchestra could overdub on top of it." Forty-five members of the FILMharmonic Orchestra made up the main ensemble, with the strings usually recorded twice to give the performance an even fuller sound. The 24-person choir was also recorded this way, effectively giving it the strength of an ensemble twice its size.
One Problem at a Time
Looking back, the roughly 70 minutes of music in the game took almost exactly a year to create. Most of the gameplay music that serves the various locations in the story (each of the worlds has its own intro track and playlist, for example) was written between April and December of 2007. After that, the cinematics were scored pretty much in order leading up to the recording dates scheduled for several consecutive days in March of 2008.
While the orchestral session was the culmination of the project, there was still plenty of work left to be done, including recording the piano parts in Seattle, as well as the mixing process that Rippy oversaw in Microsoft's Soundlab studio in Redmond and Studio X in Seattle. And finally, came his work on the upcoming Halo Wars soundtrack that hit stores a couple of weeks ahead of the game.
"I'm very excited about the soundtrack," Rippy enthuses. "It's two discs ? the first is a stereo CD with about 50 minutes of game music. The second is a DVD with nine extra tracks, a short behind-the-scenes video, a couple of trailers, and a selection of cuts from the first disc remixed in 5.1. The surround versions are really cool; I think the music really lent itself to that format."
Some of the selections that Rippy ended up liking best include a piece called "Flollo" that contains some ideas he sketched out not long after Age of Empires III: The WarChiefs
. "It's got some interesting sounds happening and I think it's unlike anything that I've put out before," says Rippy. And of course it's impossible not to be fond of the game's main theme as well. "I think it can be used in different ways if there's ever a continuation of the story," he says. "My favorite, though, is a very short piece that underscores one of the cinematics ? it's called 'Part of the Plan' on the soundtrack. I'm not sure if anyone else shares my enthusiasm, but something about it was just really nice to work on."
Work Burns and Runaway Grunts
"On the whole, it was a lot of fun to work in the Halo universe," Rippy says, looking back on the project now that it has come to an end. "It was definitely fun to poke around in someone else's world and try to add to it. I also enjoyed working on the cinematics ? watching everything come together for those was really exciting."
Sadly, Halo Wars is Rippy's final project for Ensemble since Microsoft has chosen to shutter the studio now that the game has launched. "The closing of Ensemble is a tough thing and it was quite unexpected," he says. "My whole career to that point was spent there, and we had an exceptional run."
So what's next for Rippy? "I imagine that I'll be composing for games, but I'd certainly be interested in other musical challenges if they come along." he says. Considering his solid credits in games as well as his work as an independent artist over the past decade, it seems likely that Rippy will have plenty of opportunities open to him in the future.