Clint Bajakian Talks About Recording the Orchestral Score to Indiana Jones and the Emperor's Tomb
Interview conducted 10/10/02 by Sarah "invisibelle" McKeever
Indiana Jones and the Emperor's Tomb, the upcoming PS2, Xbox, and PC game, represents a major first step. It will be the first time that a full orchestra has been used to enforce the gameplay and atmosphere of a title produced by LucasArts. The composer responsible for this massive task is Clint Bajakian, who has written music for such LucasArts games as Monkey Island 2, Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, Sam and Max Hit the Road, Outlaws, and Escape From Monkey Island. The orchestra recordings took place in late July, and Clint recently answered a few questions for us regarding the project.
Was it your idea to use a live orchestra for original music in Indiana Jones and the Emperor's Tomb? And if so, how difficult was it to convince the game's producers and directors?
It was both LucasArts’ and my idea at the same time. Jeff Kliment, the sound department manager at LucasArts, mentioned the use of live orchestra to me when he originally told me about the project and expressed interest in my composing the score. To all of us, it seemed exactly the right time to make this effort. Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine called only for short musical stingers for which sampled orchestra seemed appropriate, but the extensiveness of the score envisioned for Emperor’s Tomb pointed straight towards bringing in a full live ensemble.
In what way does your composing process change when you're writing music that will be recorded by a full orchestra?
First of all, the similarity: most composers will still compose in a MIDI sequencer on the computer that plays orchestral samples back over the speakers. This way, the composer can design the music with real-time feedback. With the realism of orchestral samples these days, the composer can get a fairly realistic sound.
The difference though is interesting. What you enter in the way of notes and rhythms into the MIDI sequencer is not what the end-user is going to hear, unlike when the score is sample-based. It is actually code for the elaborate process of music preparation (written notation scoring and part extraction) between the composition phase and the performance phase. Every note that’s written for each instrument must be playable by that instrument, and similarly, every rhythm composed must be reasonably straightforward to play at sight.
Composing for a live ensemble in a MIDI sequencer is more analogous to composing on paper at the piano. Your main concern is to compose in a way that works well for each individual player and also blends well in ensemble. This means you must take the properties of every instrument into account, such as range, tone color, and fingering unlike composing for MIDI for which you simply follow your ear towards a final result you’re happy with. Ultimately, composing for samplers is for machines to play and composing for live orchestra is for human beings to play.
The other key difference is the music preparation. The first step is to quantize the notes in the MIDI sequence to a completely unnatural and mechanical degree. Quantization is making all the notes’ rhythms and durations metrically perfect. While the MIDI file now sounds unnaturally “machine-like”, the transcription to written notation is much easier. The next step is to transcribe the MIDI sequence into a music notation program. My orchestrator, Steve Zuckerman (who also orchestrated Myst III: Exile for Jack Wall) used Mark of the Unicorn’s Mosaic to score the Indy compositions. I sent him Digital Performer files which he transcribed into Mosaic documents. Then he returned the Mosaic documents to me and Jared Emerson-Johnson, my composition assistant for the project, and we would listen to the scores over the same synthesizers Steve used in Los Angeles. When we arrived at a final version, Jared would extract the parts. At this point, the score was ready for the conductor (Adam Stern of Seattle) and the parts ready for the orchestra (Northwest Sinfonia of Seattle).
How has this experience been different from games like Escape From Monkey Island where you mix live players with synthesizers or instrument samples?
Like the old days of pre-electricity, the whole thing was to be recorded live and that was that. So, there’s no fuss of having to slave (time synchronize over a cable) the MIDI sequencer to the digital audio multitrack application, or having to commit the MIDI tracks to audio for mixing. What you heard on the stage was what you got! And Steve Smith did a superb job of recording the ensemble using the finest microphones, microphone preamps and recording equipment. The recording was staged in the chapel at Bastyr University in Washington state. The room was magnificent.
How large was the orchestra that you used?
We had an orchestra of 72 players. This is large enough not to have to augment the numbers with sampled sounds. They got such a beautiful, rich sound and sightread incredibly. Steve Zuckerman’s an my work totally paid off to make the music both challenging and straightforward at the same time. With limited recording time, you have to be extremely careful not to overburden the players with unnecessary complexity. They sounded great – and came across as a much larger ensemble than they really were, simply due to how well they played, and how great the room sounded.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of using a real orchestra instead of just using instrument samples and MIDI?
Using sampled sounds is fast and less expensive. This is often a perfect choice for many professional productions. If you listen to Saturday morning cartoons, you often hear well-crafted sample-based scores that work just fine. But nothing can deliver the drama and power that a live ensemble can muster. This has always been true and will always remain true. One aspect people may overlook is that we’re talking about a group of human beings here. They all have emotions and are all sharing the same music-making experience. Some are tired, some are fresh, some are angry about a speeding ticket he got on the way, others love the music, some may hate it – but the common fact is that they’re all combining the expressive power of their individual instrument with everyone else’s, putting decades of assiduous practice to the test. The magic that results can’t be achieved in any other way.
Can we expect dynamic and interactive music like Fate of Atlantis or even Jedi Outcast?
Yes – the goal is to utilize the recordings in a way analogous to the way we utilize the John Williams scores for a title like Jedi Outcast. We will often simply play a piece as written – but we will also often edit different pieces together, both off-line, and in real-time in the game using the audio engine, in order to achieve the music following the action.
Is this the first time in your career that your music has been performed by a professional orchestra?
This is indeed the first time in my career that I have had the privilege of working with a live orchestra. The experience was totally gratifying for myself as well as everyone else involved so far as I can tell. I hope to have the opportunity a lot more in the future. I am formally trained in composition, orchestration and conducting, so in many ways I felt the most at home as I’ve ever felt in the 12 years I’ve been composing for games.
What was the recording sessions like for you when you heard the orchestra play your music for the first time?
It was like powerful magic. What blew me away more than anything is how closely the orchestra got the piece upon first reading. It was incredible! The conductor, Adam Stern, would say “onto the next piece”, then there’d be a shuffling of papers, then you’d just hear the piece pretty much all there! The other feeling I had was that I had experienced these pieces so many times via MIDI, that to hear it “correctly” as played by a great orchestra in a great hall was an awesome treat.
Do you think LucasArts and other game companies you work with may be more open to using real orchestras in the future?
Absolutely. It has already become a cutting edge trend for leading titles throughout the industry, and producers can only be happy they took that route when the products wrap and go out to the public with live orchestra. Again, there’s no other way to get that dramatic intensity in a musical score, so it is simply a matter of whether producers and executives find that expressive power worth the increase in cost. My guess is that they can see the difference. At a recent Game Developers Conference, Jack Wall, composer for Myst III: Exile, demonstrated a MIDI mock-up followed by the same musical passage as recorded with a real orchestra and chorus. The difference spoke volumes – and I think producers are listening.
So in the future, do you think it's possible that we'll see more live musicians in, say, the next Monkey Island game?
I would certainly hope so – MIDI samples work just fine for many things, but there’s nothing like live players to really take the music to its fullest potential!
Look for Indiana Jones and the Emperor's Tomb sometime this fall (or winter?). Also, if you want to get in touch with Clint, you can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his website at TheSoundDepartment.com.