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Gamers Got Game


Photo: Courtesy Ubisoft

Michael Nielsen and Kaveh Cohen are a study in concentration as they sit alongside each other behind the colossal SSL 9000K console in the control room of the Clint Eastwood Scoring Stage at Burbank, Calif.’s Warner Bros. Studios. The two composers, both 33, are in the final stages of the biggest project of their short careers — scoring the Xbox 360 videogame Splinter Cell: Conviction, the fifth installment in Ubisoft’s popular series based on the Tom Clancy espionage novel of the same name. On the other side of the glass is a 62-piece string orchestra, and the sound coming through the big monitors is both lush and edgy, as the strings saw away over an ominous electronic pulse.

Both hardcore gamers, Nielsen and Cohen are intimately familiar with the Splinter Cell Series, which they’ve been playing since the initial release. They beat out seven other candidates for this highly desirable job, knowing only that it was for a Ubisoft project until they got the gig. “When they called us from Montreal to tell us it was for the next Splinter Cell, there was a lot of high-fiving,” says Nielsen.

The partners are relative newcomers, but their rise has been explosive. Ten years ago, while working at the Guitar Center in Sherman Oaks, Calif., they bonded over a mutual desire to break into orchestrating, though they came to it from opposite directions — Nielsen was a rock guitarist who had studied history at UCLA, while Cohen, who had learned the basics of composition at the Musicians’ Institute, was an avid collector of film scores. Both are essentially self-taught, but they’re quick studies. “There’s nothing like doing it,” says Cohen of their education in the field.

Their first job, at the dawn of the decade, was doing the music for the E! series Hollywood Off-Ramp. The show only lasted a few episodes, but the neophyte composers were hooked. They set their sights on doing trailers, formed their own company, Ninja Tracks, hooked up with Groove Addicts for distribution and client bookings, and packaged their first batch of pieces on a data DVD titled Full Tilt. Trailer production companies are always hungry for new sounds, and the partners’ edgy, up-to-the-minute melding of orchestral music and electronica quickly found receptive ears around the industry.

Michael Nielsen (left) and Kaveh Cohen at the conductor’s podium for the orchestral sessions

“It was a trial by fire,” says Nielsen. “But as soon as we got our first batch of music out, it took off. At that point, I said to Kaveh, ‘I think we’ve found our niche.’” That was in 2005. Since then, the collaborators have scored dozens of trailers, including Transformers, Eastern Promises, The Bourne Ultimatum, Grindhouse, The Island and Get Rich or Die Tryin’.

In early 2007, a Ubisoft staffer zipping through the most recent Full Tilt sampler heard a cue he decided was perfect for the upcoming Splinter Cell. Nielsen and Cohen put together an elaborate pitch, and after two months of sitting on pins and needles while the field of candidates narrowed, they emerged victorious.

Nielsen and Cohen were told that the fifth Splinter Cell installment would be a complete departure from its predecessors, with an overhaul of the character and the game play, and that called for a “big Hollywood sound,” Nielsen recalls. “So we decided to maintain what we loved about the franchise and bring our own thing to it — bring it to the next level.”

Ubisoft sent them a QuickTime video of a partial map with camera fly-through to familiarize them with the environment. From there they were on their own. Because videogames work on looping, this process wasn’t about sound to picture. “But we’ve had several years of scoring to picture without the picture,” Nielson points out, “because that’s the nature of the trailer business. We’re used to going off our gut to feel out the pacing, and we applied that skill to this project.”

The partners have virtually twin home studio setups: Mac G5s, 1.2TB SATA servers holding tons of matching samples and keyboards that they use as MIDI input controllers — Cohen has a Kurzweil PC 88 and Nielsen uses a Yamaha SO8. Both are “diehard Logic users.”

The 62-piece-strong string orchestra at the Clint Eastwood Scoring Stage at Warner Bros. Studios

The first challenge, says Cohen, was “trying to get the layers to work seamlessly with each other. Layer one required a stealthy, espionage sound, with the tension heightened for layer two. The third layer, when the character gets into a fight, had to be balls-to-the-wall combat music — very intense and a huge jump from layer one.”

The Splinter Cell: Conviction recording team, from left: Mike Zarin, Vincent Gagnon (Ubisoft), John Rosenberg (contractor), Tristan Bernier (Ubisoft), Ira Hearshen (conductor), Dain Blair, Michael Nielsen (composer), Kaveh Cohen (composer), Milton Nelson (orchestrator)

Challenge number two was creating music “that holds your attention but doesn’t distract from the illusion of being inside the game,” Nielsen explains. Cohen offers an analogy: “They say the best movie score is one you don’t remember hearing — it does its job without hitting you in the face. It’s the same with videogames.”

In all, the partners would compose more than 90 minutes of music, with 90 percent of it orchestral — hence the need for elaborate mockups; Ubisoft obviously wanted to know precisely what the completed score contained before shelling out the big bucks for the two-day scoring session. To this end, Nielsen and Cohen made extensive use of sample libraries like VSL’s and the SONiVOX Symphonic Collection. When all the orchestral material was mocked up, the composers sent it to their orchestrator, laying out what each section of the orchestra would play. “He got a huge stash of MIDI files per layer, which he then pulled into Finale and assembled the whole thing,” says Cohen.

After months of exhausting, concentrated work, the big day arrived. Sitting beside the partners at the big SSL was engineer Casey Stone, recording the orchestra using Pro Tools, having already dumped the prerecorded music into Pro Tools from Logic. Once the orchestrations were completed, Stone handled the final stage, mixing the whole enchilada and stemming each cue as a single track. But for the composers, the peak moment of the entire process was happening right in front of them on the Eastwood stage.

“To hear your music come to life is the most transcendent experience imaginable,” Nielsen marvels. “It’s indescribable. At the end of the second day of recording, I turned to Kav and said, ‘Man, we’ve gotta find a way to do this again.’”

Bud Scoppa is Mix‘s L.A. editor.