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Live Orchestra for The Hobbit

I once heard Buzz Burroughs, director of audio at Sony Computer Entertainment and game audio guru, jokingly say, “The only post-production in video games is the shrinkwrap that's put on the jewel case.

I once heard Buzz Burroughs, director of audio at Sony ComputerEntertainment and game audio guru, jokingly say, “The onlypost-production in video games is the shrinkwrap that’s put on thejewel case.” It’s not far from the truth. Post-production, asmost audio engineers know it, doesn’t exist yet in video games. Yes,there is dialog, sound effects and music, and they can all be set topre-determined levels for the final video game audio mix, but unlikefilm and television, the audio elements in video games are really being“mixed” unknowingly by the player as he or she plays thegame, with infinite possibilities and variations.

Writing for video games today, especially for a major release likeThe Hobbit, can incorporate the same approach as scoring forfilm and television. Other times, it’s a completely different journeywith a different set of rules. Composing and creating sound design forfilm is a linear process: The visuals already exist and you can seewhat you’re writing for. Instead of writing long-form musiccompositions, the video game composer must break themes and variationsinto segments that can be pieced together as the game is played. It’san audio “jigsaw puzzle,” and its pieces must have manydifferent and sometimes endless ways of fitting together.

Bringing a sweeping Celtic orchestral soundtrack to TheHobbit for Game-cube, Playstation 2 and Xbox was a challenge.Celtic live orchestra? But it’s only a game. Well, if you haven’tchecked in on your teenager lately (or stopped by the Dolby booth atany trade show!), you should know that video games have changed inrecent years. With high-resolution video/animation, DVD playback and5.1 surround sound, video games now rival feature films in look andsound, and the gamers now demand it.

At our studio, Rednote Audio (formerly Slackmates), we have beencreating music and sound design for video games for five years, writingin styles ranging from techno/grunge to post-modern orchestral. Myteam/partners/fellow composers in Raleigh, N.C., include Dave Adams andJason Graves. The Hobbit, to be released November 11, 2003, hasbeen our most challenging, but rewarding, project to date.

From the beginning, we knew that the music had to convey the moodand feel of Middle Earth in this incredible Tolkien adventure. Itsometimes had to be intimate and organic, other times bold and fierce:a perfect project to combine vintage gear with modern digital recordingmethods. We were asked to compose a Celtic orchestral soundtrack andget paid for doing it. What more could you ask for?

Fortunately, Inevitable Entertainment, developer of TheHobbit, had the insight and desire to use live orchestra, and wewere awarded the project on the merits of a demo we createdspecifically for it. Intensive planning and direction by MarcSchaefgen, audio supervisor at Inevitable Entertainment, and ChanceThomas, Tolkien music director for Vivendi Universal Games, led us onour Hobbit journey to Seattle for recording sessions at Studio Xwith the Northwest Sinfonia. This orchestra has been recording musicfor film and video games for more than 10 years, including hit videogames Medal of Honor, Myst III: Exile and TotalAnnihilation. But before recording the orchestra came the realwork.


We began The Hobbit with research: reading Tolkien’sliterature and immersing ourselves in the world of Bilbo, Gandalf andGollum. Bilbo’s enchanting world needed a music score that was simple,melodic and organic for his adventures through Middle Earth, switchingto bold and dramatic for the combat scenes. Reading the literature, onecan hear fiddles, wood flutes, bagpipes, guitar, mandolins andbodhrans. And when a fight or battle occurs, one can imagine the pulseof low chugging strings, dramatic percussion and moving brass lines andstabs.

As always, there were many discussions with the developer regardingthe game’s design, look and feel. The game has been designed for familyviewing and has the look of an animated film. The player will controlBilbo from his peaceful Hobbit hole in Hobbiton into the dark andharrowing Mirkwood forest and, finally, to the Lonely Mountain, home ofSmaug the dragon. Bilbo is a spry, cute little character, and veryskillful with his sword “Sting” as he battles trolls,goblins, giant spiders and other mysterious creatures. As the gameprogresses, he acquires items, knowledge and the courage to help himcomplete his quest. Following the original Tolkien story, it’s a mix oflushly animated, flowing landscapes and dark, menacing underworlds.

Once the budget was approved for over 75 minutes of original music,Schaefgen at Inevitable created a “cue” list, whichdetailed every music track for the game and served as our composition’sroad map. The scores were split into two categories: acousticinstrumental for Bilbo’s exploration and live orchestral for theaction/combat scenes.

The game is divided into chapters and regions/scenes, with eachscene having its own musical requirements, including themes fordifferent characters and places in the story. Most music cues in ascene are normally 20 to 30 seconds long and are rated in levels ofintensity. As the scene is played, these cues must fit together in anygiven order but still sound cohesive. To finish out the scene, there isa “Win-Stinger” and a “Lose-Stinger” to matcheach level of intensity, depending on where the player stops game playduring the scene. This process was carried to produce music for morethan 210 music cues spanning over six chapters and 40 scenes.

At the project’s beginning, there was no way for us to play the gameand get a feel for each scene. With artwork, scripts and weeklyconference calls, Inevitable’s design team gave us detaileddescriptions, but as the game developed, we received rough builds andwere able to play it with our demo music in place so we could fine-tunethe music before the final scores were completed.


“There are no marimbas in Hobbiton,” said Chance Thomas,the Tolkien music director, after he reviewed one of our battle cuesthat had a marimba line being played through a combat scene. He wasright. We recorded demos for every scene in the game and sent them toThomas, who kept us on track with Tolkien’s Middle Earth moods andstyle.

We recorded all of the demos at Rednote Audio, which houses a mix ofvintage analog gear and contemporary DAWs. We knew that most of theseacoustic instrumental demos would be used in the game if approved bythe Tolkien team, so we made the extra effort to record them as finaltakes. We recorded ourselves and other performers playing traditionalCeltic instruments, including six- and 12-string guitar, fiddle, Irishflute, bouzouki, mandolin, bodhran, hammered dulcimer and uillean pipesin our 25×30-foot live room using MOTU’s Digital Performer with896s, vintage API preamps, a silver-faced UREI 1176, two AKG 414s, avintage Neumann U67 and Oktava MK012s. Our solo takes of the guitarsand bouzouki were recorded with the Oktava MK012s in an X-Y pattern,API 512 mic pre’s and the Manley Variable-MU stereo comp/limiter. TheNeumann U67 and a Neve 1272 mic pre were also used, about two feetbehind the Oktavas to help define the center “sweetspot.”

The orchestra demos were also written and produced at Rednote Audiousing library samples that would later be replaced by the NorthwestSinfonia in Seattle at Studio X. Jason Graves arranged our demos forlive orchestra using an amazing music-publishing program, Sibelius, toedit and print out the parts. Manuscript preparation took us fromRaleigh to Seattle, printing out scores from Sibelius in the hotel roomone hour before the sessions at Studio X. Oh, how we love thoselast-minute crunches!


Studio X owner/engineer Reed Ruddy and engineer Sam Hofstedtrecorded the live orchestra sessions at their Seattle facility, whichhas a long history of recording groups like R.E.M., Aerosmith, Nirvanaand Pearl Jam, along with major film soundtracks. Simon James of SimonJames Music contracted the players for the Northwest Sinfonia and actedas concertmaster. We budgeted for the orchestra using an online toolthat Simon has created just for that purpose. You can find it on hisWebsite at

Studio X has a large live room that easily accommodated the 40-pieceorchestra. The sessions were recorded just as they would be for mostfilm scores using a traditional orchestra setup. Gobos separatedvarious sections, and the harpist was placed in an iso booth. Most cueswere :05 to :30 in length, and Jason Graves conducted the sessionswithout a hitch. The Northwest Sinfonia are extremely experiencedplayers, nailing each cue on the second to third time through. Weworked at a fairly fast pace through two six-hour sessions with a10-minute break each hour. The orchestra did not have any problemsplaying with headphones and preferred to play to a click instead of ouroriginal demos through the cans.

We’ve learned from experience that the orchestra performs better ifwe string short cues of :05 to :15 together in groups, playing four tofive cues in a row with pauses of four measures in between each cue.Having the orchestra play straight through these groups of cues keepstheir performance really sharp and also saves time overall. To put itsimply, it’s easier to have them keep playing than to have themstop/start/stop/start.

To record the orchestra, we used Digital Performer on a G4PowerBook, recording directly from Studio X’s incredible collection ofvintage mics, Grace preamps and an SSL board into our MOTU 896 FireWireinterface. For the hard drive recorder, we used an Apple Ipod. It wasstrange seeing everything routed into our little Mac laptop, but itallowed us to come home and immediately begin editing and mixing. Plus,it sounded great.

Back at Rednote Audio, we replaced the demo-sampled orchestra trackswith the live orchestra tracks and mixed the entire game scoresoundtrack in Dolby Pro Logic II surround sound using Digital Performer4 on a G4 Mac and a Mackie D8B Digital Mixer, monitoring throughself-powered Mackie HR824s and HR624s. A touch of Audio Ease’s Altiverbplug-in was used for an orchestral hall, and the Kurzweil RSP8 was usedfor the overall surround sound mix effects. We also mixed the sounddesign and surround mixes for music and sound design for the in-gamecinematics (short movies that tell the story as game play evolves) andfor the film and television ad trailers.

Due to memory restrictions on the DVD game disc, Nintendo recommends32k for audio playback in the Gamecube Xbox, and Playstation 2 supportsaudio playback up to 48k. All final mixes for the game were recorded at16-bit/32k, converted to MP3s for playback on the Gamecube and ADPCMsfor Playstation 2 and Xbox. These mixes were sent to Schaefgen atInevitable, where he and other audio programmers placed the music intothe game.

“The gamers want it…” is a commonly heard phrasein game development. Game audio A.I. (artificial intelligence) isbecoming “smarter” all of the time, as the demand forbetter sound, graphics and interactivity grows. There are new audiotools being introduced that will allow game composers and sounddesigners the ability to mix audio in real time as the game is beingplayed. The gap is narrowing between audio for games andfilm/television production, but due to the “nature of thebeast,” games will always require a different technical approachfrom films and other methods of audio production.

Any way you look at it, audio production for video games has evolvedfrom the 3-track sequenced beeps of the early ’80s to today’s liveorchestral soundtracks. The sound of game music has become sosophisticated and complex that it’s sometimes hard to distinguish itfrom its film-score sibling. At its best, it brings the player closerto a truly interactive experience, something film scores can’t do.

If you want to learn more about the production and profession ofvideo game audio, visit the game Audio Network Guild’s Website (,an organization created by video game audio producers, composers andsound designers to help promote better game audio.

Rod Abernethy ([email protected]) is a game audiocomposer/designer based in Raleigh, N.C. He would like to thank DaveAdams and Jason Graves for their help in penning this article, and hismanager, Bob Rice, of Four Bars Intertainment.