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Nico Interviews Marty O'Donnell

In October, 2004, Nico (the man behind the music at Red vs Blue, among many other things) put together a collection of 30 questions for Marty O'Donnell - an eclectic mix of hardcore technical-type stuff, solid background thoughts, and a few light (but oh-so-important!) questions. Marty did a wonderful job answering them - the interview is chock-full of questions I've never seen before. Marty gives out a lot of interviews - but this one's a bit different. Enjoy!


Nico: Your relationship with Bungie began when you were hired as audio and music lead for Myth: The Fallen Lords and its sequel Soulblighter. Traditionally, splash screen music for a video game serves a dual role: it should be representative of the game's mood, and should entice or motivate the player to get a game going.

The Myth theme is compelling, majestic, and dramatic, but ultimately this cello duet's mood laments war -- hardly what you'd expect from an RTS war title. Were you given specific parameters for this composition by Seropian or Jones, or was this something you brought to the table?

Marty: Wow, somebody asking about Myth music! First of all thanks for the compliments. When I began working with the Bungie guys back in late 1996, I knew almost nothing about them. I figured that Alex was the business guy, and Jason was the creative genius. I was pretty much right, but the thing I didn't know was that Alex had done music and audio on Marathon. Luckily, Alex never gave me any advice or direction about music. Jason is a creative genius but it was also obvious that he really didn't want to give anything but the vaguest input when it came to music. I was free to do what I thought would be good for Myth, and after seeing the amount of carnage that Myth portrayed and especially after reading the narrative (which Jason wrote) the idea of a lament just seemed right. Remember that I'm substantially older than almost all the folks at Bungie and I remember thinking that cello and chamber orchestra would at least be a change of pace from what they were used to listening to. I knew I had succeeded when one of the programmers (Jason Regier) told me "That cello rocks!"

Nico: In his excellent book on the subject, legendary video game music and audio composer The Fatman once wrote that in order to innovate musically, "you have to do what does not work." You did that with Myth's music. On paper, Gregorian monk chants, tribal drumming, and a rock and roll cello theme for a Sci-fi FPS translates into a musical WTF? of sorts. And yet the Halo theme has become intrinsically connected to the Halo franchise as an indispensable element of its storytelling. Were there specific elements to Halo's story which inspired the overall musical mood? Were you given parameters by Bungie? Or was this more of a "hey Marty, work your magic!"

Marty: By that point I had been working on Halo sound design for months so I knew the mood of the world pretty well. Joseph Staten came to me and described the action and plot for the 3 minute demo that we needed to put together for MacWorld '99. I was intrigued by two main things. One; we were going to have a captive audience, and two; there would be no narration or sound effects. Joe said three important words to describe the mood he hoped we could create; ancient, mysterious, and epic. Somehow for me that translated into monks with tribal drumming and prog-rock orchestra. Another thing I know well comes from my many years writing and producing jingles. If you can get a melody to bury itself into the heads of your audience, you win. My desire to have the monk chant melody become synonymous with Halo was part marketing and part job security.

Nico: You've occasionally recycled your material. Myth's "A Traitor's Grave" theme appeared in Bungie's underrated Oni title. Oni's "Hurry" has common elements with Halo's "Pale Rider." Myth uses a variation of the "Ghost" pad on the Roland JD-990, and we seem to hear parts of it in Assault on the Control Room. Were those due to time constraints, or aesthetic wishes?

Marty: Um, could you please stop paying such close attention? Every decision I ever make is based totally on the highest possible aesthetic vision... and then sometimes I've just got to get something in the box to ship. Just so you know, every composer has recycled their stuff at some point. In reality often the music just works again, and you figure no one will notice. "Hurry" and "Pale Rider" aren't really variations on a theme as much as a revisiting of an orchestral style I happen to like. You'll probably hear more of that in the future.

Nico: Bungie pioneered a few concepts in the game industry, one of these being reactive NPCs, and associated sound tags. If you shot a Bob in Marathon 2, he'd yell at you. Shoot him enough, he'd actually turn against you with "get him he's a traitor!" Bungie, being Bungie, seems to have an unhealthy obsession with self-referencing. From the now classic "they're everywhere," which I believe is present in every single title Bungie ever developed, to the near-ubiquitous "I've got a bad feeling about this," which in itself is a reference that's present in just about every Star Wars movie. Halo has a large number of sound tags and assets which reference Marathon -- how were those communicated to you? Was there a memo?

Marty: No memo, but I know that they'll always show up somewhere. Whoever is responsible for the script always gets input from the whole Bungie team at some point. Therefore, it's almost guaranteed that little self-referential (I wouldn't call them unhealthy) dialog lines will appear. Think of them as tasty treats for those of you who are paying close attention. They don't hurt anyone and they're like a bonus for those in "the know". Hey, it works for The Simpsons doesn't it?


Nico: The Halo theme. To my ears, the strings sound like a hybrid of synthesized strings and real strings. Can you discuss some of the song's components?

Marty: That's a recording and production technique that I've used for many years. I lay down guide tracks using samples and synths, and then use those as a basis for adding live musicians. On the original Halo music session, I brought in the tracks and then layered live strings over the top. The string players are hearing the guide tracks as they play and I can get multiple takes of all the violins (for example) playing just the first violin part, and then move on to recording the second violin part with the same performers and so on. When we start to mix, I can choose to mix as much real and fake together as I want. If you're really attentive, you will notice when I've used the real monks with and without the fake monk vocal samples.

Nico: Playing Halo on Legendary, there's a bit more random dialogue from the Marines. Am I crazy?

Marty: Yes you're crazy, but I was already beginning to suspect that and it's nothing to be ashamed of. There is the exact same amount of possible dialog on every difficulty level, but the situations can change so it might seem a little different.

Nico: Myth has Dwarves. Halo has Grunts. Both perform the same function of being little guys who run around blowing stuff up or getting blown up, adding what some consider to be a pivotally exciting and humorous element to the game play. Is this concept something you brought to the table? How did the grunts come to sound like they do?

Marty: I think it's just another Bungie tradition. Playing a game can take a long time. We believe that it's important to give the player fun, excitement, drama, pathos, and some humor. Even though we take these characters seriously, a Surly Dwarf and a methane breathing alien grunt are the obvious choices for a bit of comedy relief. My father is the voice of the dwarves and Joe Staten nailed the grunts. A little pitch shifting is the only other element.

Nico: What's something you REALLY wish had made it into Halo?

Marty: Collecting gold pieces after you kill something.

Nico: Is it in Halo 2?

Marty: Yes, it's the basis of Halo 2's entire complex economic system. Wait till you see the stuff you can buy to power up your character in the forerunner villages.

Nico: World-renowned guitarist and producer Nile Rodgers is collaborating with you on a Halo 2 soundtrack. Every game franchise you've worked on has been graced with your unique aesthetic of synthesized --and yet very organic-- music. As a result, you've earned a legion of fans, the so-called Marty Army. Some of these fans feel that this is an unclean, commercially motivated relationship. What do you say to those fans?

Marty: I say, talk to me after you have two daughters going through college. Seriously, I think that if we only listened to fans, then we'd end up just shipping Marathon over and over again. Trust us to make changes and grow in ways that are exciting to us. We won't always make the perfect choice, but the act of doing something in a new way, or taking chances is part of what makes us Bungie. By the way, Nile Rodgers is one of the coolest and most talented people I've ever met.

Nico: Nile Rodgers' website recently released one of the songs from the Halo 2 soundtrack to mixed initial reviews. Will Halo 2's single player campaign have in-game non Marty music?

Marty: You're just gonna have to play and find out.


Nico: One of your "secret weapons" is the Roland JD-990, specifically your use of the mellotron (an old 60s sampler) string sound. In that respect, this relatively cheap, near vintage module outperforms modern synths worth ten times as much. What are some of your other secret weapons?

Marty: My main tools are the Emu E4XT Ultra, and Proteus 2000, Roland JD-990, and XV-5080, and the Kurzweil K2500X. I've got a ton of plug-ins for Pro-Tools and Digital Performer. I haven't switched over to an entirely software based studio but I probably will at some point. Sometimes the old ways are the best ways, and sometimes the old guys are just lazy.

Nico: What are some of the musical instruments lying around in your studio?

Marty: South American Pan Pipes and a strange recorder.

Nico: What's your recording chain (mic pre, compressor, etc) for foley work? Music?

Marty: My prediction: no one cares.

Nico: Recording voice talent for games often requires yelling and screaming. What is your microphone of choice for that kind of abuse?

Marty: Whatever mic the engineer is comfortable with. Here at Bungie Recording Studios we use two Shure KSM44's. But I record voice sessions not only here, but also in Chicago, Seattle, and LA. It's all about getting good source and then consistent post-processing.


Nico: Stalin once said "there's a certain quality to quantity." Halo's audio assets belittle most other AAA titles in sheer quantity. Halo renders sound using a modified version of the ADPCM codec. Adaptive Differenctial Pulse Code Modulation appears to be a holy grail in terms of how little space it takes versus sound quality. Was the same codec used for the Mac/PC version? Is ADPCM the future, or do you anticipate a return to .aiff or .wav as DVDs become the standard medium for PC games in the years ahead?

Marty: Just so you know, I'm not a big Stalin fan. For video games, it's all about the number of simultaneous voices you can play and how well you can keep track of their location in 3D space. Streaming off a DVD isn't that great, so getting voices into RAM is the key. Some sort of inexpensive codec is going to be with us for the foreseeable future since RAM is always at a premium. And it's spelled "Differential", Mr. Smarty Pants.

Nico: Describe a typical session involving directing voice talent. Who is in the control booth?

Marty: I'm always in the booth, along with Joe Staten for many of the sessions, and Dawn Hershey (our casting director) for our LA sessions. My engineers are Mike Salvatori in Chicago, Jay Weinland in Redmond, and Dave Atherton in LA. Joe is the writer so he explains a lot of the back story and gives dramatic direction. I mainly try to keep those sessions running smoothly and sometimes translate Joe's directions so the actors better understand. When Joe isn't there, I direct the actors to give me what the scene needs or describe the action that's going on around them in the game to help them stay in character. We've worked with some superb actors and they really love being able to add and improvise lines, especially after they understand what we're trying to do.

Nico: Most production companies have a generally straightforward and intuitive working hierarchy. With audio, it seems the lines would be a bit more blurred. To whom do you report during production? From whom do you take direction?

Marty: Everyone and no one. As Audio Director, I see myself both as someone who casts a vision for the final product and also helps to realize the visions of others. I need to work closely with Jason Jones (Project Lead), Joe Staten (Writer/Director of Cinematics), the Art Director, the Lead Designer, and so on and so forth. Everyone has some sort of audio need and input. It's quite a team effort, and "intuitive working hierarchy" is certainly a nice way of looking at it.

Nico: Oni was the first title where you worked as audio lead, yet subcontracted music from an external source, Power of Seven (who did music work for the last two Marathon titles). How was the experience working with an external group?

Marty: Oni was a little different experience for both Bungie and me. The Bungie West team had already contracted with Power of Seven and had their music in hand by the time I was brought in as Audio Lead. They went through some leadership changes and wanted my direction as to how to implement music and audio in that game. We built a new audio engine from the ground up which included some nice dynamic music implementation. I chose to keep the Power of Seven music and compose about the same amount of new music and score the game with a mixture of the two. Although I've since met Paul Sebastian (Power of Seven), who's a great guy, we didn't actually ever work together during Oni's production.

Nico: While working on Halo, you had to keep in mind that the audio was going to be played on dramatically different sound systems, from multi-speaker surround systems to tiny television speakers. Can you describe your finishing touches on Halo's sound assets to make sure the end user would hear everything. Do you push certain frequencies, compress others? Do you make use of mastering tools such as the HDCD Model 1 (the so-called "magic 3dB box" because it adds 3dB to audio without compromising dynamics)?

Marty: I don't believe in magic boxes. I do however believe in my ears. In general I like to create a final mix on the best system possible. For Halo2 that's 5.1 Surround Sound in my studio on a full set of Genelecs. Then I check it in stereo coming out of the Sony TV set. If it doesn't sound clear on the Sony, I'll make small changes until it does as long as it doesn't screw up the good mix. The hardest thing to balance is the difference between a good headphone mix and a good room mix.

Nico: Reactive music, that is to say music that shifts dynamically based on player-decided actions, poses both compositional and programming challenges. Most composers approach this from a compositional standpoint. And yet there are several moments in Halo where you created some powerful and dramatic moments using dynamics alone, ie sound volume. For example, when the player emerges into the Truth and Reconciliation's hangar after rescuing Keyes, the music goes up a few dB. This kind of cinematic drama is extremely difficult to achieve seamlessly, and yet you've found an elegant solution. What are your thoughts on reactive music?

Marty: I approach scoring a game the same way I approach scoring a movie. There are many ways for music and dynamics to enhance the emotional undertone of any dramatic scene or situation, and I want to be able to use all the same methods whether it's linear or non-linear. The resulting music must enhance rather than call attention to itself. Regardless of the implementation of the music playback, the experience for the user must appear as though the music supported their unique choices and story. Sometimes that means having a piece of music of a given duration that plays at the right moment, and sometimes that means having music with malleable parts that can start, change, and stop in ways that react to different things the player might do. Being able to have those features at game run-time affects the way I compose, and I think I'm getting better at it.

Nico: Are there advantages to having one single individual as "audio lead" for character sound tags, dialogue, and audio effects, and "music lead" for the same title? Disadvantages?

Marty: I believe there should be one single Audio Director (me) for Bungie titles; one single audio vision for the game, supported by talented people on the team that can realize and enhance that vision. Jay Weinland is the Audio Lead, and C Paul Johnson is a sound designer, but I'm the guy who gets the final say on all things audio. Seriously, you should give credit to those guys for doing incredible work, and blame me for the final results. If you don't like something, it's not their fault, it's mine. I also get great help from the outside, like my old partner Mike Salvatori, who still engineers, produces and composes, and Stan LePard who orchestrated and produced a music session for me here in Seattle. I actually think movies would be better if they adopted the Audio Director idea, but those folks are quite set in their ways.


Nico: What non-Bungie title has the strongest music and/or audio?

Marty: I love Rez, Ico, and Beyond Good and Evil.

Nico: Were you sober when you put together the final section of Oni's "End Titles?"

Marty: No.

Nico: Boxers or briefs?

Marty: I feel more secure in my tighty whities.

Nico: Your 18-year old wants to be a video game audio content creator. What's your advice to him or her?

Marty: That's actually close to the truth, except she's 19. Practice, practice, practice.

Nico: Describe your typical day at Bungie.

Marty: Roll in around 11:30 A.M. get coffee, check the web, go to lunch for a couple hours, play a little multi-player, go home.

Nico: After your father, Geoffrey Charlton-Perrin was the best thing that ever happened to the video game industry's voice talent pool. Discuss.

Marty: My father thanks you. It really is just a matter of getting someone who is a good actor and understands how to understate rather than over act. When we hired Geoffrey in 1997, his voice was a breath of fresh air amidst the swampy non-talent infested mire that was game voice work. I had worked with professional voice talent for many years and didn't even consider compromising just because it was a game. Geoffrey is also a great writer who recognized good writing. He really enjoyed bringing it to life.

Nico: Let's pretend you own an iPod mini, which roughly holds 5 CD-quality full-length albums. Which are the five albums that would make it on there?

Marty: Stravinsky's Rite of Spring (plus Firebird Suite)
Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra (plus String Quartets)
Samuel Barber's Greatest Hits (including Adagio for Strings)
Gentle Giant's Octopus
Yes's Close to the Edge


Nico: You ran an audio design firm back in the day, and have a tremendous amount of experience in terms of foley work, sound design, jingle composition, recording, and video game music composition. Ten, twenty years from now, you might end up alongside guys like Ennio Morricone, whose early work brought a whole new emotional dimension to the otherwise fairly limiting genre of spaghetti westerns. Likewise, it took years before John Williams' work was considered "legit" and not just rehashed Holst by musicologists, and proper credit to his genius was given. To a degree, both of these composers suffered from working in genres which were just getting started, and therefore viewed with suspicion. What will it take before video games are considered a legitimate vehicle for musical expression?

Marty: Just a few more years baby...

Under the pseudonym Grasshopper, Nico Audy-Rowland has done sound design and has composed mus... er, ripped off Marty O'Donnell for popular Myth maps created by Project Magma.

He is also the music and audio guy for Rooster Teeth's popular machinima series Red vs Blue, and more recently for their newest series The Strangerhood.

He abhors spell checkers, and can be reached at nico@redvsblue.com.