Game Music

Wrath of the Lich King Audio Team Interview: Russell Brower, Derek Duke, and Glenn Stafford

November 13, 2008 | | 1 Comment Share thison Facebook Wrath of the Lich King Audio Team Interview: Russell Brower, Derek Duke, and Glenn Staffordon Twitter

This game has a seriously kickass title. I’ve always dug lich’s in general (Daggerfall, anyone?), so it’s cool to have a game that focuses on one. The pieces that many of us heard in the beta version of the game is only a fraction of the expansion’s massive 7 hours of music, so we’ve been fortunate to gather up composers Russell Brower, Derek Duke, and Glenn Stafford to tell us more about the game’s music.

We discover their inspirations as well as the names of the musicians and instruments that were recorded for the score, as well as get confirmation that the Wrath of the Lich King soundtrack will be hitting iTunes with three exclusive tracks that will be different from the Collector’s Edition soundtrack’s exclusive tracks. Way to tease us, Blizzard!

Read the interview with the Blizzard sound team after the jump.

OSV: Let’s jump right into the epic, 9-minute long main theme for Wrath of the Lich King, composed by Russell Brower. The bombastic orchestral music alongside a powerful choir stands in stark contrast to the rest of the music featured in Lich King. There are also many borrowed elements from the original World of Warcraft main theme by Jason Hayes. How did you approach the Wrath of the Lich King main theme, and what story does it tell?

Russell: Wrath of the Lich King contains over 7 hours of new music, much of which is even more epic than the “Main Title” piece. Players will have to venture beyond the initial zones, quests, and the early portions of the story presented in the beta (upon which your impressions are based) to experience the full breadth and depth of score that awaits them.

The “Main Title” itself was created to be an overture; it’s an homage to all three epochs of World of Warcraft. The new Wrath of the Lich King theme is presented in two different forms, the first having been superimposed on the 7/4 march from the 2004 edition. It is then quoted in the style of the vrykul and Howling Fjord. The “Teldrassil” theme is one of my personal favorites from the original release, and I had always wondered what it would sound like played “loud and proud.” It was very rewarding to create this new arrangement. Various melodies from The Burning Crusade and its Black Temple and Sunwell content updates are revisited as well, in a fashion that is darker, yet grander than the previous version. In capping off the entire arrangement with the quote from “Call to Arms,” players are treated to a favorite musical moment revisited with an appropriately large orchestra and choir. Since the original piece was, during World of Warcraft’s early pre-alpha development, the actual main title, it seemed high-time to add it back into the game.

OSV: Given that this expansion has a dark mood and setting, I wasn’t surprised to see Derek Duke deeply involved with the score. However, both Russell Brower and Glenn Stafford also contribute extensively to the title’s score. How was the work split up among the team, and what factors were considered when assigning a composer to a specific area?

Russell: Each of us three composers has his own area of creative comfort and expertise; our skills complement each other well, with some overlap, of course. Early on, we put concept art from all the then-known areas of the expansion up on my office wall, and we discussed potential musical approaches for each. Over time, all three of us found components of the game that “spoke” to us and sparked our respective imaginations. Each person took the lead on several such areas. Which is not to say that strict lines were drawn in terms of composition tasks; it is more accurate that each zone, race and instance had a “champion” who saw to it that all bases were covered. There were “trends,” such as Derek working on areas with trolls or the tuskarr, Glenn providing thematic development for the dwarves and tauren, and myself on the vrykul settlements, Dalaran, Sholazar and others.

At the end of the day, each composer wrote for a wide variety of locales, moods and influences, as well as ensembles ranging from unusual ethnic instruments, to synthesizers, to full orchestra and choir.

OSV: This score sounds far more ambient than what we’ve heard previously. How was this style decided upon by the team, and how do you as composers feel about the effectiveness of this style of music in the game? Was it challenging to write mainly ambient music for Lich King?

Russell: It depends upon the definition of “ambient.” By our definition, we remain somewhat plaintive in our musical statements for the same reasons that have always been a guiding factor in World of Warcraft — with players spending long periods of time in a given area, a continuous “foreground” or even “mid-ground” musical presence would quickly wear thin, causing people to reach for the mute button. The exploration dynamic of the game-play is far better served by having the music materialize nearly unnoticed out of the ambience, enhance the moment, then recede in a subtle fashion. The occasional deliberate introduction of more explosive music has a greater impact, in contrast, when it happens.

That said, we actually chose to approach the music with less “ambient” (by our definition) sensibilities than The Burning Crusade, and introduce several new, memorable melodies for the various races, encounters and zones.

OSV: Derek Duke’s music for the game’s tundra areas consistently features this metallic noise that creates an image of dense ice. Tell us about this audio element and how you used it to develop the atmosphere of this area in the game.

Derek: There were many ‘metallic noises’ used in the music for the Borean Tundra and various other Scourge holds. The basic sounds were sourced from prepared piano, bowed piano, and waterphone. They were then treated with various electronic processes, some of which date back to Warcraft III’s undead music or from the Eastern Plaguelands in the original World of Warcraft.

OSV: The “Dragonblight” area provides even more abstract music by Derek Duke, with an unsettling piano motif that is repeated throughout all the music associated with this region. Tell us about this motif and how it was used to heighten the atmosphere of this area of the game.

Derek: Abstract? I suppose the perception of the music is in the ear of the beholder. What may give it that feel is the piano was played ‘comp-provisationally’, pre-composed, but improvised within certain limits. That may be why you hear a lilt to the tempos and a more natural tension-release in that zone’s music.

OSV: Russell, you worked on the “Gizzly Hills” area, where the music sounds more spring-like with the sounds of animals and insects in the background. Given this different setting, how did the team ensure this area’s music remained cohesive with the rest of the title’s music? A beautiful melody voiced by what sounds like bagpipes is the “theme” for this area, so tell us a little bit about this instrument’s use here.

Russell: In the last days of the beta, we added the majority of the Grizzly Hills tracks into the game, and some featured solos performed on a Swedish nyckelharpa. This is a type of keyed violin, with sympathetic strings mounted below the principal bowed strings. The sound is much richer than a typical fiddle, with its own idiomatic performance techniques. Swedish master nyckelharpist Cajsa Ekstav performed a combination of written parts and improvisations on those parts. The key to making these scores fit into the overall picture was to retain a certain level of reflection—almost sadness—in the writing and performance. Beyond that, the contrast with some of the darker, heavier music elsewhere in the expansion is also desirable. It’s way too predictable to place overly gloomy or “dangerous” music everywhere in a setting like World of Warcraft; we would like the music to take the player on a journey every bit as much as the quests and lore.

OSV: Derek Duke continues with bagpipes-like sounds into the “Howling Ford” region, with strings being added as the music progresses, culminating in a really beautiful piece of music. What can you tell us about the music in this region?

Russell: I had been planning to score the overall theme for Wrath of the Lich King to feature a sweeping melody played on the Uilleann Pipes (Irish bagpipes) by the amazing Eric Rigler. You’ve heard him on several famous film scores, such as Braveheart and Titanic. This choice was spurred by the presence of the vrykul and their almost Nordic, Viking architecture. When Derek heard of my plans, he let it be known that he had similar ideas for Howling Fjord in general—a clear example of how the concept art and background lore affected us both in a similar manner.

OSV: Glenn Stafford’s contributions cover what appear to be character-specific themes as opposed to region-specific themes. These pieces are more in line with the traditional orchestral approach that we’ve heard previously in WoW, so what thought went into creating these tracks?

Glenn: As well as some region-specific themes for Storm Peaks and dungeon themes for Ulduar and Chamber of the Aspects, there was need for some revised character/race-specific themes, such as for iron dwarves and winter tauren (taunka). Since I had composed much of the original Ironforge (dwarf) and Thunder Bluff (tauren) music in the original launch of World of Warcraft, it made sense. The iron dwarf music has much of the same influential roots as the original Ironforge tracks, albeit with less of the boldly stated “Russian” type themes, and with a somewhat more moody and ethnic flavor. The taunka music attempts to capture the same tribal flavor as the original tauren, but tempered with the desperate situation the taunka now face, outcast and living in isolation.

OSV: While much of the music in Lich King so far sounds abstract, even the melody-driven music featured in Lich King has a certain distance to it, sounding somewhat heavy and oppressed. Why was this approach taken for Wrath of the Lich King?

Russell: At first look, one might expect the entire continent of Northrend to be one endless frozen tundra. While this is happily not the case, we still felt that the entire place should feel somewhat broken, desecrated and fouled—the scene of countless terrors, despite the beauty of much of the land. Music often has to walk a fine and subtle line of balance between the extremes of danger, dark and light. The sense of cold or wretchedness is often represented by the more abstract or atonal music, while the melodic components will tend to portray more specific emotions or events, or the inherent spirit of an entire race. There are no rules, though; we go with whatever feels right and remains consistent with all the other aspects of the game.

OSV: Is any of the game’s music recorded live? It doesn’t sound like an orchestra was used for the majority of the ambient themes, but perhaps piece players were recorded? Was world woodwind player Pedro Eustache on board for this expansion?

Russell: The majority of the score features either full orchestra, or selected instrumental overdubs. That said, most of the music (live or otherwise) was added in the final days of the beta, so you may not have heard much of it as yet. Indeed Pedro Eustache is featured on several cues, along with Laurence Juber on guitar, Eric Rigler on the Uilleann Pipes, Scottish Bagpipes and flutes, Cajsa Ekstav on nyckelharpa and many other world-class musicians.

OSV: You’ve noted that Wrath of the Lich King will feature over 7 hours of new music. This sounds like a lot of music, so tell us a little bit about the variety, and how the team went about creating this massive quantity of music. Would you be able to tell us how long it took to create this body of work?

Russell: For us, a considerable amount of time is spent simply mulling over the musical possibilities while we’re off working on other things, including other games and events. In fact, speaking for myself, the time spent percolating ideas in the background is inversely-proportional to the amount of time it takes to write the cues. With that concept in place, I can sum things up in that we first started thinking about Wrath of the Lich King’s music mid-2007. My first reactions to the setting and mood were set to score paper almost immediately in the form of “Northrend One”, a score which we recorded for the teaser trailer that debuted at the 2007 BlizzCon event, along with some of Derek’s “Howling Fjord” cues.

Next up came music projects relating to the Sunwell content update, StarCraft II and even Diablo III. Therefore, given our relatively small crew, we accomplished the vast majority of the Wrath of the Lich King music during 2008. We multi-task well, and the variety of projects (especially across different game franchises) keeps our perspectives fresh. Seven hours is indeed a lot of music, and I am quite proud of our team’s ability to bring down the good thunder time and again, even when the schedule conspires against us.

OSV: Given the ambient nature of the music, I was surprised to see a soundtrack release for Wrath of the Lich King scheduled for the Collector’s Edition of the game. Will the soundtrack feature the amazing production values that we heard in The Burning Crusade album? Also, despite the recent release of Blizzard’s music on iTunes, can fans hope to eventually see this soundtrack along with The Burning Crusade, Taverns of Azeroth, and even StarCraft on the Blizzard store in the future for those who want physical copies?

Russell: Absolutely there is a soundtrack CD included in the Collector’s Edition. It contains some of our most epic and dynamic music yet. You’ll find that Northrend and Wrath of the Lich King have inspired music that takes you on a journey that is as varied and rich as the expansion itself. From hundreds of musicians down to a single French horn or even the tonic whisper of the wind, each cue has been created to take its place in the overall experience.

The Wrath of the Lich King soundtrack will be available on iTunes starting November 13, with its own set of three iTunes-exclusive tracks that are different than the three Collector’s Edition-exclusive tracks. Of course, the Collector’s Edition contains a physical CD, which makes it, well—collectable.

OSV: With work on the game’s music complete, what are your final thoughts regarding the music in the game? What does this score offer the fans of WoW as well as to the fans of each of your music?

Russell: To paraphrase a famous showman, World of Warcraft’s music will never be complete; it will continue to grow and diversify as the stories, encounters and new areas unfold. Wrath of the Lich King will see some free content updates in the coming months, adding scores as epic as Naxxramas, Black Temple and the Sunwell, or as intimate as David Arkenstone’s “Temple of the Moon”, which is one of my favorites, and which I had the honor of conducting.

World of Warcraft is experientially more than a game; it is an immersive environment with a vast landscape of stories in which to play a role. Music adds emotion and depth to this world, and it communicates to the player on another level from the gameplay, text and dialogue. We hope that the scores enrich every player’s journey, and that the original soundtrack releases bring some of those same memories outside of the game for even more people to enjoy.

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