Interview: Composer Jack Wall On The Dirty And Clean Future Sounds Of ‘Call Of Duty: Black Ops II’

Composer Jack Wall has a slew of credits to his name in game music, going all the way back to the PC classic Myst. Since then, he’s worked with BioWare on the Mass Effect franchise, Ubisoft with Splinter Cell and picked up both BAFTA and Spike TV nominations for his work on Mass Effect 2. His next big gig: Treyarch’s Black Ops II, which hits on November 13th from Activision.

Wall and I spoke (well, by e-mail) about his work on the near future shooter, about getting the sound just right, and composing in the legendary Abbey Road studios. You can also check out some of his previous work on his site.

MTV Multiplayer: First off, what attracted you to this particular gig?

Jack Wall: The sheer challenge of it. A lot of people play this game and some great composers have worked on the series. I was excited to add my voice and to see what I could do with it. It just seemed like a great opportunity. Also, working with Brian Tuey, the audio director at Treyarch, is something that I wanted to do again. We worked together 10 years ago when he was with another company. Brian is a true pro and a friend to any artist. He really knows how to get the best out of everyone he works with.

Multiplayer: Given that there’s a little more of science fiction edge to Black Ops II, how did that factor into your approach to the score?

Wall: There are two time periods represented in the game: The cold war ‘80s and the near future in 2025. We tried to keep the ‘80s a bit more orchestral and earthy, while the near future has more futuristic sounds, synths and other elements that make it feel either “dirty future” or “clean future” depending on the level. I really wanted to create a musical palette that matches the visual feel for each individual level while weaving some overarching themes throughout.

Multiplayer: Along the same lines, how does something like this—more broadly a war game—compare to a very specific type of sci-fi game like Mass Effect 2?

Wall: With the Mass Effect series, you have a fictional yet compelling and wide-ranging galactic story. With Black Ops II, I would call it “futuristic fiction” (as opposed to historical fiction) in that the entire story is based on the extrapolation of present day events here on Earth, and is certainly one version of what the future could conceivably hold. That feels fundamentally different to me, yet fantastical all the same. I think that somehow the mix of the music, visuals and gameplay make this feel more hyper-real, than say, a fantastical experience. The story of Black Ops II was an important focal point for the developers. With David Goyer and Dave Anthony writing it together, you can expect a truly cinematic approach to this game. My musical efforts are all about supporting that story.

Multiplayer: What kind of instrumentation can we expect?

Wall: Because Black Ops II is about a few people making a major difference in world events, I wanted to have a number of solo instruments and vocalists to represent that individualism that the player feels going through the single player campaign with some of those elements sticking around for the multiplayer. Of course, there’s a very large orchestra and plenty of synths and other designed sounds for the more futuristic parts of the game.

Multiplayer: Could you tell our readers a little about your broad vision for the score here?

Wall: Call of Duty has always musically been about fairly broad strokes and grand ideas. Black Ops II has that, but I also wanted to get more intimate at times – maybe infuse the score with some ambient sounds as well. It’s really challenging to find the right moments to get intimate or to change the musical direction to be ambient or attach a theme to a character. I think we did that with Raul Menendez and a few other characters in the game and also found some amazing spots to get more personal. That creates an arc and gives the player a more well-rounded experience. We also wanted to feel more attached to the characters and story in this game. I hope the music has helped to achieve that in some small way.

Multiplayer: Could you share a few of your influences? Not only for Black Ops II but in general?

Wall: I’ve always been attracted to and really moved by emotion-driven music with unique production elements, ie: Peter Gabriel, Jeff Buckley, Seal, and Sarah McLachlan off the top. In my early career as an engineer, I worked with and was greatly influenced by the production techniques of John Leventhal, Kevin Killen, John Cale, Larry Klein, Flood and countless others. I’m really drawn to film composers as well: John Williams of course, but also people like Vangelis and Thomas Newman. This is by no means a comprehensive list.

Multiplayer: Speaking with other composers who’ve worked on shooters, one of the primary challenges seems to be writing music around the rhythm of gunfire. How did you handle this particular obstacle?

Wall: I always write with a sound effects track sitting underneath everything. I end up turning it off quite a bit, but I always have it ready to check against what I’m writing to make sure it’s working in tandem with the realistic sound effects in the game. I have the thought process that the music is only a part of the soundscape of what is going on. Sometimes, with my audio director Brian Tuey, we would strategize on where music should be the focus to create a real emotional moment in the game. In those moments, music takes over the soundscape and the sound design takes a back seat. We did this several times sprinkled throughout the game. Other times we would leave music completely out, giving the sound design its due. I’m a big fan of choosing your moments. Sometimes you need everything. Sometimes you need nothing. And then sometimes you want everything else in-between. That’s what can create an arc of emotion and experience for the player.

In general, I find it useful to create broader gestures (like high string lines) soaring over top of the mix. That helps the music really cut through. Of course trumpets can do that as well. This is always a challenge.

Multiplayer: For the would-be composers and producers out there, could you share what it’s like working at Abbey Road Studios?

Wall: Abbey Road Studios is the best studio in the world. Not only are the rooms, the tech and the equipment state-of-the-art, but it has incredible ghosts and you feel them when you are there. There is something about Abbey Road that is pure magic.

Once I walked in (it was maybe the 7th or 8th session we had done), and I realized that I was starting to get used to it. I guess I was starting to take it all a little bit for granted. But after thinking about that, I said, “Wait a minute, I’m at Abbey Road Studios.” I got goose bumps again and really wanted to pinch myself. A giant smile came over my face and I realized I was part of the privileged few who’ve walked those halls. It is awesome.

Multiplayer: What else are you working on now?

Wall: I’m working on the reboot of the Lost Planet series – Lost Planet 3 for Capcom and Spark Unlimited. It’s going to be great. I hope gamers will give it a good look. We’re doing some unique things with the music, also working with some great players. It has a score, but it also has a soundtrack that sounds a bit like “alien twang.” Should be fun.

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