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Interview with Halo 3 composer Marty O'Donnell
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The most anticipated game of the year is almost upon us. Halo 3, the final chapter in the groundbreaking Halo trilogy, is set to shatter day-one entertainment sales records when it is released worldwide beginning Tuesday, Sept. 25. Created by legendary developer Bungie Studios and exclusive to the Xbox 360 video game and entertainment system, Halo 3 features a truly epic symphonic score by Bungie Audio Director / Music Composer Marty O'Donnell and co-writer Mike Salvatori. Following up on our Halo 3 trailer music - postmortem interview we recently caught up with Marty to find out why his latest masterpiece is the most accomplished of the three Halo scores. 

M4G:  You must be very excited that this highly anticipated sequel is close to finishing the fight. What are your current feelings? Do you consider this to be your Return of the King?
Marty O’Donnell: I feel mainly relief, and satisfaction on completing something this huge. I believe this is Bungie’s Return of the King and I’m thrilled to have been able to contribute. This is a trilogy that we’ve been working on for almost ten years and to see it come to a conclusion has been an amazing experience.

M4G: How much music did you write for the Halo 3 score?
Marty O’Donnell: That’s not easy to say. In terms of pure musical data in the engine, I’m around 7 hours. I’m not using everything, and that includes lots of different mixes and arrangements of some of the pieces. I can say this much, Mike Salvatori and I are now working on trying to make a Halo 3 Soundtrack and I’m certain we’ll need two CD’s.

M4G: You’ve said in the past that you prefer to leave the music scoring until the latter stages of development. How much time did you give yourself to sit down and actually score Halo 3?
Marty O’Donnell: I wrote a lot of music along the way, but waited to actually score many important moments in the game until as late as possible. The cinematics needed to be finished and in-engine for me to really do my best work. The levels needed to be playable and close to final in order for me to understand the best way for music to support and enhance the player’s experience.

M4G: What kinds of advantages were available to you since the game is coming out on Xbox 360 versus the original Xbox?
Marty O’Donnell: Fidelity and quantity. The compression is better so I could fit more music in less space and have it sounding better than ever. I also was able to use a lot of memory for playing back multiple tracks simultaneously with more advanced scripting which I hope will make for a more “scored” feeling during game-play.

M4G: How has Bungie’s proprietary adaptive music system for Halo 3 enhanced or altered your writing process, if at all?
Marty O’Donnell: I’m sure that my writing process has been influenced over time by what I know will work in our system, but I’m trying to simply write cool music rather than getting distracted by the technology. Mike does a lot of his work without thinking about the way the engine works, and I count on that unencumbered fresh approach when we collaborate.

M4G: With the huge success of the franchise, did you feel any additional pressure or scrutiny as you were writing the music, or were you able to detach from outside influences?
Marty O’Donnell: Well, it’s still just a game – we’re not curing any diseases or anything, so pressure is relative. I try to ignore the expectations and just write music that is exciting to me, or causes me to have some definite emotional response. I probably can’t completely detach from outside influences, but I’ve always felt that it is better to create culture than to be derivative of culture.

M4G: How was the overall composing experience different this time around?
Marty O’Donnell: Well I had this body of work to draw on. I could choose to write all new themes for Halo 3 or to return to some themes that have proven themselves worthy of some new treatments. The Master Chief is still green, and Halo is still a ring in space. I figured that some of the themes could be revisited and find a home in Halo 3. We did some experimentation with outside bands in Halo 2 and this time I wanted come back to the basics and keep the essential themes more true to the Halo universe. I think of the overall formal structure of the music in the three games to be A B A1, rather than A B A, or A B C.

M4G:  Did you expand on the live budget and if so, what did the experience entail?
Marty O’Donnell: One of the ways that was most satisfying for me was to revisit some of the familiar themes and be able to record the new arrangements with a large orchestra and choir. I went through all the music from Halo 1 and Halo 2 that I wished had been recorded with a nice large group of musicians and selected the ones I thought would really benefit. I worked with my orchestrator, Stan LePard, and then went into Studio X in Seattle with the Northwest Sinfonia and let ‘em rip. It was great! Also, I was able to record most of the cinematic music there as well.

M4G: What kind of musical landscapes, environments and emotions are created for Halo 3?
Marty O’Donnell: I think it’s important that just about every emotion you can think of is evoked at some point while playing our game. I remember one of our designers asking me to evoke the emotion of “guilt” and I struggled with that one. Longing, confusion, fear, heroism, sadness, love – these are just some of the emotions I hope people feel while playing and listening. Style-wise we go from big orchestra to solo instruments, from choir to solo voice, from epic classical to techno, from rock to roll.

M4G: How was Michael Salvatori involved with the co-writing?
Marty O’Donnell: Mike has always been involved in the writing. He and I have collaborated for more than 25 years now. Sometimes I’ll channel him and try and write something he would write, and he’ll do the same for me. Then we’ll send each other the work-in-progress for the other guy to enhance. Most of the time I’ll send him some tracks that are going in a particular direction that I think need his touch. Other times he’ll send me some tracks that he’s started that I’ll either mess with or ask him to make some changes that will make them more usable for the game.

M4G: Did you incur any challenges or unanticipated factors, timelines during development?
Marty O’Donnell: We had some technical challenges that we hadn’t anticipated that caused us to have a less than fully functioning audio engine for quite a long time. We kept producing content anyway knowing that our amazing engineers would figure out all the issues and everything would go in as planned. It was close but we made it. I’m happy also that we were able to use Waves plug-ins in our game engine. That makes a huge difference.

M4G: A score album will be released after the game’s launch. Have you decided which tracks to feature? How much music from the game will be included? Do you enjoy the process of compiling music for an album release?
Marty O’Donnell: I like the process but it always comes after the game is finished and I’m pretty tired of working. It’s actually good to take a little break and then come back to all the music with fresh ears (I hope) and try to determine how to make a soundtrack experience enjoyable for the listener. For the Halo 3 Original Soundtrack, I’m only using music that made it into the game. I also think it’s cool to have the tracks ordered in the same relative order they occur during the course of playing through the game.

M4G: No bands are involved on the soundtrack this time. Was this a creative decision?
Marty O’Donnell: As I said before, it seemed right to me that we didn’t need outside bands for Halo 3. I’m not saying it was wrong for Halo 2, or that I’ll never do that again because it was a great experience, it just seemed like Halo 3 was a return to our roots in some way. I’m sure the fans will let me know if I made the wrong decision.

M4G: Now that the trilogy is complete, is there anything you would have liked to change regarding the music for the previous games, Halo 1 or Halo 2?
Marty O’Donnell: Lots of things, however I believe that you shouldn’t mess with stuff that you’ve already created and released and you shouldn’t let things that aren’t perfect bother you. I’ll just learn from past mistakes, move on, and hopefully make something better the next time out.

M4G: Have you considered re-arranging your music for the Halo series and releasing as an album? How about a Halo symphony concert event or series?
Marty O’Donnell: That’s a great idea! Actually it’s amazing to see the Video Games Live concerts or the PLAY! concerts and it would be a blast to have an entire concert devoted to only Halo music. I’m not certain there would be an audience for that though.

M4G: Assuming there will one day be a Halo movie release, you will be on board to score the film right?
Marty O’Donnell: Ask Peter Jackson, and let him know I’m available.

M4G: What’s next for Marty O’Donnell? Are you taking a break from writing or will you soon be heading into another project? Any music projects you’re working on outside of Bungie?
Marty O’Donnell: I’m taking a tiny break but I’m already beginning work on more cool Bungie stuff. You never know what might happen in the future, but I’m keeping all my best work inside Bungie for the present. I really can’t imagine a better team to contribute to than the one right here in Kirkland, Washington.

Related links:

Sumthing Else and the Global Gaming League launch HALO 2 Volume Two soundtrack mash mixer contest
Halo awarded 'Excellence in Audio' at Game Developer's Choice Awards
Official Halo 3 soundtrack website launches!
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