John Broomhall talks to Nick Arundel about creating the score for Batman: Arkham City
Nick Arundel is a busy man. Not only has he headed up a global team whose considerable talents have been brought to bear on an epic game audio production; he has also faced the challenge – and enjoyed the immense privilege – of writing much of the music score, ably assisted by Ron Fish handling additional composition.
Clocking in at over two hours Batman: Arkham City’s music content is sizeable. However, Arundel is no fan of ‘wall-to-wall’ music, favouring the mood-evoking, story-telling power of sound design where he feels appropriate.
As the project progresses, many a conversation takes place as to whether sound or music will lead specific areas of the game and furthermore, how subjective, non-literal sound design as well as music, will be used to sonically conjure up a feeling.
“We really ‘front-end’ the music,” explains Arundel.
“For the first three chapters, it’s always there, but we slowly reduce it. For one thing, we don’t want the player to tire of hearing music over and over again – and we want the sound design to be heard clearly.
"All the new game features are music-led initially, then sound design takes over.
“Having the music composition in-house really works for us because, given the level of interactivity we have musically in-game, it’s so difficult to explain what’s required to an external composer. We’d really need them in-house the whole time, I think.
"Much of the music is in layers and segments, though it’s not a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach. There are times when we just play a stereo track on a loop for, say, an intro or success or fail.
"Other music content has branching sections where, depending on what the player does, it will move to another ‘set’. Then we have layering for other parts.”
“All this feeds into the writing of the music. There are types of harmonic writing that work when you’re going to branch that don’t work when you’re layering. If you’ve got six layers of music, it’s really easy to get the first three harmonically the same.
"To get the middle one to match the fourth one but then know that you can never play the first two when the fourth one’s playing is tough to describe to someone – it literally feeds into the types of chords you use.
“To be able to work with Ron Fish, we have a sheet of cues which he constantly refers to which define the harmonic movement of patterns of chords, ostenato figures, the theme, and types of variations of the theme – all four or eight bars long.
“For instance, the minor third is the most important interval in the music. We always modulate by minor thirds and it’s the second interval in the melody.So harmonically, it’s all by minor thirds and we only have two major chords in the whole game.
"Having these rules is how I make sure all the external composition and the internal stuff melds together.”
SOMETHING IN THE AIR
In due time, the mammoth music score was recorded at the internationally acclaimed destination of many a major movie or video game orchestral recording; namely London’s Air Studios.
With Isobel Griffiths organising the orchestra, Nick Woolage engineering and Tim Davies orchestrating and conducting, the standard of soundtrack talent on hand was evidently second-to-none.
“I must highlight Tim Davies – I’ve never seen anyone work so hard. With 120 minutes of music to get through in five days of triple sessions, he really turned it on,” remarks Arundel.
“It wouldn’t have been so bad if it was all tutti stuff but for the interactive layered cues, we needed stems.
“The way it worked was full orchestra for the first two sessions on Monday – followed by choir in the evening. Tuesday was full orchestra during the day and brass in the evening and so on, until the last day, which was all full orchestra.
"It’s a credit to Tim’s orchestration that we didn’t have a single problem with the score. The only issue was something I simply changed my mind on. It was just a solo part so I grabbed a piece of manuscript, made my change, got the soloist in, and we were done.
“It was so great to work with these people. As audio director, as well as composer, it’s brilliant because there are so many things going on with the project coming into its final stage, and you’re there listening to the music and pretty sure it’s going to be fine.
"But until you actually hear the orchestra play it, you’re not 110 per cent confident it’s going to sound exactly as you imagined. But to these guys, it’s their day job – they’re relaxed and confident.
“All the in-game music was mixed in our own facilities at Rocksteady Studios HQ so I could deal with the different stems required. Meanwhile, we did a separate mix for the soundtrack release with Nick Woolage at Air Studios about a month ago.”
Apparently, Arundel will now be visiting the Batcave for a well-earned rest.