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BlizzCon 2009: Audio Director Russell Brower Digs Deep With StarCraft II Details and Career History

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A trip to BlizzCon wouldn’t be complete without a chat with Russell Brower, the Director of Audio at Blizzard Entertainment. We checked in with him to get an update on the progress of all the titles that are currently being developed at Blizzard, and he has some interesting information regarding the score for StarCraft II in particular.

Later in the interview, we touch on his background, digging into his history at Disney and how his work there was helpful in working on World of Warcraft. We also find out what his favorite Disney ride is as well as his favorite track that he’s created for Blizzard Entertainment over the years.

It’s definitely an interesting discussion with lots of juicy details, so join us for our interview after the jump.

OSV: So here we are again with Russell Brower, director of audio at Blizzard Entertainment. So, Wrath of the Lich King is out. Amazing soundtrack, so congratulations on getting that out there.

Brower: Thank you very much.

OSV: So StarCraft II and Diablo III both seem quite a ways out, so what can you tell us about the progress in terms of audio on these projects?

Brower: Well, we had a really awesome series of recording sessions for StarCraft II. We held those at Skywalker Ranch, actually, in Marin county. The Skywalker Symphony Orchestra provided the most amazing musical experience I’ve had in my career. As we always say, it was epic, it was bold, it was StarCraft II! It was the right group and the right room and the right music and the right set of composers. It was myself, Glenn Stafford, Derek Duke, and Neal Acree all contributing to the score. So that’s a huge amount of progress on that project, and pretty much one of the big puzzle pieces.

On Diablo III, it’s like everything else we do. We’re tracking the progress of the game. So in terms of the monk reveal, we’ve been working on that whole “how to do that reveal.” So we were involved with the storyboards early on, and talking about having some quiet areas without music, and make it kind of mysterious with all the wind and the sandstorm and everything, and blow it out with a big fight, and have a bit more air in that piece as opposed to the WoW piece, in which, you know, the Earth was breaking. [narrator voice] “The world has been broken.”

OSV: [Laughs]

Brower: So the music was going bam, bam, bam!

OSV: Very cool. I had the chance to check out some of the titles on the floor. So with StarCraft II, I heard Derek’s sort of repetitious and grating Zerg sound, and Glenn’s remix it sounds like. It sounds like there are some elements from the original Terran rock themes in that track we’re hearing.

Brower: Ah, that’s a real special one, and I’m glad you brought it up because he wrote new pieces, but you can tell it’s the same composer, it’s very much in that same vein. But whereas the original was all Glenn, all keyboards, all samples, there wasn’t one guitar in that, in the one from 12 years ago. This new one, we went to Woodstock, New York and recorded my favorite rhythm section ever, which is Jerry Marotta on drums and Tony Levin on bass, that’s Peter Grabriel’s old rhythm section. You’ve seen Jerry at our past concerts here at BlizzCon. But to get those two together, it’s amazing. And we had Jesse Gress on guitar, who is Todd Rundgren’s guitar player, Ben Butler on guitar, and Daniel Weiss on keyboards. But it’s this world class rhythm section, and so his new music is just that more dynamic and just… I don’t want to use the word tasty.

OSV: [Laughs]

Brower: But it’s a word like that.

OSV: So, there’s a jukebox that plays in the cantina area. Are those original tunes, or are they licensed? They play some country western, sort of twangy songs.

Brower: It’s a work in progress. At the moment, those tunes are all originals and they’re all by either our internal house bands, if you will, and their progeny, friends, and relations. It’s still a work in progress, but the idea is that wherever the jukebox is, and it moves at least once in the course of the game, you know, these space cowboy types, they carry their love of the old time rock ‘n’ roll with them. [Laughs]

OSV: It’s very interesting because there are several tracks.

Brower: It’s freedom rock. You know, some of it’s a little tongue-in-cheek, but it’s all very cool. By the way, Matt Samia, our Senior Director of Cinematics, is kind of the point person on that because he’s the leader of Big Tuna, one of our bands who played on the original StarCraft.

OSV: Yeah, I recall seeing their credit. I really love the Protoss, and I assume that’s you from our discussion last year. Some choral work, it sounded very angelic and chant-like. There were some phased synthesizers and flute work, and I was hoping you could a little about this song we’re hearing.

Brower: Thank you! Yeah, there’s music in the maps you’re hearing out on the floor. And that’s it. I didn’t do a specific recording session for it, but I manipulated sounds from the orchestral recordings we’ve done, and like you said, the synthesizer timbres and sonorities. So far I haven’t done any live flute, but it’s been fun because it’s been a really different composing experience from WoW, and it lets me keep the two very separate in my head, so I’m trying to approach each one differently.

OSV: Well, I think it’s my favorite piece I’ve heard so far.

Brower: Oh, thank you.

OSV: It sounds great. For Diablo III, I think I heard two new tracks. I heard like you were saying, it’s a desert, so there’s this area with wind and a plucked instrument that sounds like some kind of ethnic stringed instrument, and then you go into this dungeon, and it’s orchestral, you got some of the guitar, the Tristram theme in there, and so I’m very curious about that piece.

Brower: So there are two pieces that debuted in honor of the show, and they will be in the game. The first is for the Zoltun Kulle timed dungeon, and that was the real crazy upbeat piece, exactly 4 minutes. And the other piece would be the soundtrack to the monk reveal trailer. And both lift from the body of work that we’ve recorded with Lawrence Juber on guitar to get the guitar timbres, and the tonality of those Matt Uelmen chords.

OSV: Right. Fantastic stuff. I was really surprised by the combination of those chords and the whimsical string embellishments that were going on. It’s that dungeon where it collapses on you if you don’t get out on time?

Brower: Yeah, that’s Zoltun Kulle.

OSV: It was really interesting to hear that.

Brower: Well, I appreciate that because I know you’re a fan of Diablo music, as I am, so it’s important to get it right.

OSV: You guys are doing a great job. So, about [World of Warcraft: Cataclysm], I have to ask real quick. It’s going to alter the existing World of Warcraft, so I’m wondering, will the old music be in place, or how will new music play into alteration of the world?

Brower: Well, as everything here is subject to iteration and change, one of my imaginings is that music may be the common thread that when you walk into an area that’s been sundered, and I don’t mean the same recording. I don’t mean literally that the music file that plays now in the Barrens is what you’re going to hear, but that thread of melodic idea. We’re not necessarily going to rewrite all those themes because one, they’re beloved, and two, they tell you where you are with your eyes shut. I think you’ll see us use more live music, more warm, human sounding, at least in Warcraft terms. But not necessarily saying, wow, the Barrens is suddenly Dixieland jazz.

OSV: You just need to up the tempo and add a drum track.

Brower: I didn’t say that, and I never will!

OSV: [Laughs]

Brower: It needs to feel like the story in context. That the world that you have known is forever altered, and that means the music shouldn’t be unfamiliar, but something should definitely be amiss.

OSV: Well, you only have 23 hours of music to record, so it shouldn’t be a problem.

Brower: 27, but who’s counting… 27 as of the Free Content Update 3.2, “Call of the Crusade”.

OSV: You guys are crazy. I guess that’s what happens when you have a dedicated team of composers on staff all the time.

Brower: Did you see the new album, by the way?

OSV: That’s actually my next question! Seems you guys snuck in a new music release at this event, it’s called the World of Warcraft: Mosaic Soundtrack, so tell us about this collection, why you decided to release it here, and will it be available online after the show?

Brower: I think a lot of really important music for WoW was released between the expansion sets, so they didn’t find their way into the Collector’s Edition soundtracks. So we collected all of these, they’re all unreleased previously, and the other thing we did is not only make our own list of stuff that we always wanted to release, but we put a poll out on our community forums, and asked, “What would you like to hear on a CD?” And there are several suggestions from our players here, with Matt Uelmen’s “Honor Hold” being number two on the playlist here. Everyone wondered why it wasn’t on The Burning Crusade, so here it is. It’s here. “Black Temple,” “Fury of the Sunwell,” “Ulduar,” and it’s very up to date because it has “Call of the Crusade” on here.

OSV: Wow, very impressive, and a big surprise too.

Brower: It’s not every piece of music, but it’s the stuff that would make a nice listen I think, covering some very important topics. And “Brewfest!,” just to leave you with a smile!

OSV: Awesome. You snuck this one out on us.

Brower: It debuted yesterday, so yeah.

OSV: Some unreleased music, because, as you said, there is now 27 hours. You know, as an aside, I have to tell you about this. Square Enix recently put out a box set for one of their franchises called the SaGa series. It’s 20 discs, 400 songs, and about $220. I think that sets a precedent for you guys to put out the World of Warcraft box set with 400 songs, 20 discs?

Brower: Well, good on them! [Laughs] I’m a big fan of game music, and so good on them for doing their series justice. That’s awesome.

OSV: So I see that there wasn’t an audio panel this year, and the closing ceremonies look like they’re lacking the Video Games Live performances we’ve seen the last two years. Looks like we’re getting Ozzy Osbourne this time, which is going to be awesome. So I’m curious what your role was this year in this year’s audio extravaganza at the end of the show since you weren’t doing the whole orchestral and StarCraft band thing.

Brower: My role is to re-imagine what we can do in the future. So I always say, “Watch that space,” because I didn’t want to put the same show on again. It’s time to top ourselves and explore our new worlds and new music and all that. And I’m looking forward to planning something new for the future. Not having that at this year’s show is just allowing me to take some time and do this right. We’re consulting with some folks on how to just blow the roof off this joint, so like I said, “watch this space!” Meantime, we’re going to have a party, aren’t we? This is going to be an awesome party.

OSV: Absolutely. So you’ve been in music for 25+ years. So you transitioned into the game world. You used to work at Disney. And you worked on games before you were at Blizzard, but you also have this history at Disney. So I was hoping you could tell us about the course of your career and how you came to work at Blizzard.

Brower: Well, the common thing in there is games. My first job out of high school was at Disney. I was a storyboard sketch artist, and I had an out of control hobby of music and sound. And I worked on several big projects there, but about two years in, big projects came to a close, and I was looking at probably being released at the end of the project unless I could find something to do. We had a project up-and-coming, which was envisioned as an arcade of the future, and the sound department proper was busy working on the last thing, doing tweaks, and I thought, “I love doing sound, I could do that. Could I do that?” And someone, bless their heart, said yes. So I extended my gig there for another year by creating music and sound design for games that would be run on big mainframes. You couldn’t take them home with you, you had to visit the theme park to enjoy these games. So I did my first game in 1982.

Over the course of my career, I kept doing freelance game audio. Little sound effects here, some music there. And it wasn’t that compelling to me for a number of years until around the early 90s when you started hearing real recordings in games. You could actually hear music that wasn’t just general MIDI or something l like that. You would actually hear a recording of a violin or synthesizer, or what have you. You could do traditional production, and then hear it in the game. And that showed up in several famous adventure games. So I started getting excited again. I mean, I love games, but the bleeps and bloops weren’t really doing it for me. And meanwhile I was applying my trade in television, more theme parks, little bit of movies, but mostly TV. And that’s how, by the way, in my Warner Brothers years, is how I met Andrea Romano, and that brings us full circle to bringing her in to direct the voices for StarCraft II and the [panel] that went down today.

So yeah, I’ve worked in all these different mediums, but games were always a touchstone. And when I got back from a second tour of duty on theme parks, a lot of things had changed in the world. The work I had left wasn’t there. Television had completely changed. When I came out of theme parks, reality TV had completely destroyed the kinds of things I used to work on. The movies of the week and the dramas and stuff like that, with very few being produced.

By then, game audio was beginning to hit its stride. Looking back, it was still pretty pioneering, but it was compelling, so I jumped back into game audio in 2001 or 2002, and boy, never looked back, and Blizzard about 6 months after World of Warcraft was released, and they came looking for someone to lead the sound department and the new generation of stuff. Thank you Blizzard! Thank you Mike (Morhaime), thank you Chris (Metzen)!

OSV: I was thinking, the Disney parks kind of have millions of people running around, doing their own thing. Creating music for them is a bit of a challenge because they’re going to be there for a long time, hearing the same music over and over again. So it kind of applies to World of Warcraft where you have people playing the game for long durations of time hearing the same stuff again and again. So did the experience working at Disney parks and creating music for the masses help you at all when you started working on World of Warcraft?

Brower: Yeah, it absolutely helped. It was a bit of a tough sell in landing a job because I don’t think a game company would necessarily think, “Where should we look for audio people? Well, theme parks, duh!” No, that wasn’t the first thing. You look in film and TV and other games. So I’m really fortunate they decided to give me a whirl on this, and as it turns out, it was very applicable, and very helpful. A lot of the challenges, as you mentioned, do apply in this virtual world. It’s not brick-and-mortar, but the audience can move where they want ,the sound mix is determined where they’re standing at any given time, you can influence people where to go ,and sometimes you can lead them down a path, and sometimes a little of both, and the tricks change as it goes. Some of it’s interactive, some of it’s not. All very valuable, and common to it all as well is something I always love, and that’s the marriage of art, technology, and with games, commerce. The three come together the right way, it’s a tough thing to do, it’s tough to see that, but the game industry in general has been doing quite well with the blending of those three. Blizzard in particular. You’re not sacrificing one for the other, you know, you’re not picking two out of the three, it’s like, no, all three have to work. We’re not going to do this if the gameplay doesn’t work. We’re not going to do this if the art and the music doesn’t work. And of course, you have to have a successful business model.

OSV: Real quick, can I ask what your favorite ride is at the Disney parks?

Brower: I think The Haunted Mansion really had a big influence on me. There’s a scene on that ride where the melody is played with the sound of the wind, and I really never got over how cool that was.

OSV: You need to make a haunted mansion in the World of Wacraft. [Laughs]

Brower: [Laughs] It’s in the early part of the ride, right after the stretching room. You go down the corridor, and there’s thunder and lightning on the left, and the portraits are changing on the right, and this is 1969, and you’re walking through the right at that point, and I go, “Whoa!” [putting arms out] And everyone stopped behind me, and my parents say, “Russell, are you okay?” And I go, “Listen to that! Listen-to-that! The wind is playing the song! The wind, it’s playing the song!” And I found out much later who did that, and I got to work with the gentleman in my Disney career. I got to work with the man who wrote that music.

OSV: That’s awesome. Well, my last question. Do you have a favorite track you’ve created at Blizzard aside from “Lament of the Highborne?”

Brower: “Grizzly Hills.”

OSV: Ah, “Grizzly Hills” with the nykleharpa, right?

Brower: [pause] Yeah, the nykleharpa. I thought you said Nicole Harper! I thought, “Who’s that?”

OSV: [Laughs] With Nicole Harpa, right?

Bower: No, and did she play that nykelharpa well? No, it’s one that for some reason, everything came together right. I wrote it kind of with an emotion in mind. It reminded me of someone.

OSV: Yeah, it really swells.

Brower: So I think that came through in the music. And I’m really pleased that it seems to be pretty popular.

OSV: Well, thank you so much.

Brower: Always a pleasure.

OSV: We definitely have a lot to look forward to in the coming year and years, and we’re just looking forward to hearing more of your’s and the team’s music, so thank you very much!

Brower: Thank you.

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