Sure, it’s a Spaghetti-Western-inspired soundtrack to the hit Rockstar game called jokingly by fans Grand Theft Horse. But to me, a richly-composed musical score for a blockbuster video game sums up a lot of where music production is at these days. Composed by Bill Elm and Woody Jackson, Red Dead Redemption gets a score that blends Western authenticity with more experimental ambiances. We get a first glimpse of that process with a behind-the-scenes video released by Rockstar (and reproduced on CDM with permission) this week.

Watch past the boilerplate voiceover as they get into the production, and you’ll see some glimpses of real gems. Aside from harmonica legend Tommy Morgan, they’ve got themselves one seriously wonderful collection of odd instruments. (There’s some of the organic, decayed instrumental sense of Diego Stocco here, who with Hans Zimmer made the rusty clang and bang of Sherlock Holmes last winter.)

What’s this got to do with digital music? In the post-sampling age, even the oldest, most broken-down sound can become digital. And old, entirely acoustic sonic tricks are being rediscovered by today’s generation. Sometimes it takes years behind sound-alike convolution reverbs to convince you that what you should really do is just play into a kettle drum.

There’s also a new approach to composition necessitated by games, which ironically brings game scoring – itself inspired mainly by film composition – in line with techniques associated with electronic music and DJing (stems, loops, and the like). I don’t think any game has yet mastered the challenge; game industry workflows, technical limitations, deadlines, and the sheer enormity of having to re-learn compositional narrative in interactive contexts all conspire against that. But an open-ended Old West playground seems a good place to begin.

The basic techniques here are nothing new in gaming; what’s nice is that the game’s setting opens up something other than the parade of licensed radio (Grand Theft Auto) or conventional orchestral soundtrack. In order to keep things digestible, I’m fairly certain you’re not getting a full taste of everything the musical coordinators did, so I will try to talk to them more. The big limitation of game soundtracks in the next-generation console era has been that the relative flexibility of MIDI-driven soundtracks has been replaced with better-sounding, but more inflexible recorded audio. Then again, the challenge of how to make audio more dynamic is one that live laptop musicians face as do game designers.

I hope to have more with the makers of this score soon, so if you have questions or ideas, let us know.

  • Awesome, hey lets just play a whole game with in only one key of a minor at 130bpm, sure the sounds are great, but you think at least they would try and change the key, nothing overly interesting about using stems only and turning stuff off and on based on game states. if it was all fragments of sound used together to remake a soundtrack on the fly (with chord and tempo changes) , then that would be interesting, truth is, games will no longer be called games, they will be called interactive media, music, video, film, art will become one.
    there is a whole new world to explore of interactive media and music…imagine being able to download a album and change the mix in real time 🙂 id like to see that 🙂

  • Meneer

    I wouldn't have though a big Rockstar production like this would be so directionless in the composition department. To me, it seems like it was more of a band process, where every member contributes to the 'song'.
    Also, I liked it when the composer asked the trumpetplayer to play some chords for him.

  • Markus Johannes

    Interactive music has been done in Nintendo games since SNES days, the first example I can remember is Super Mario World where percussion track is heard when riding Yoshi. In N64 era it was taken to the point where mix between different tracks of background music would change depending on which part of the level player was in, to suit the mood of visuals (Super Mario 64).
    In some newer Zelda games music changes to "danger theme" when there are enemies around and the actions of player trigger musical elements that suit the music (Wind Waker).

    Most of that was done in MIDI as far as I can tell. I guess the new thing being done here is the use of actual recorded audio, with all the planning that is required before recording.

  • This is cool stuff, but I agree with some of the comments that more innovation is needed in the game score sector.

    The work Kent Jolly and Aaron McLeran did with Brian Eno on Spore is a good example. Through using Pure data they had enormous flexibility, right down into synthesis.

    I think interactive music for games is a huge opportunity. In some ways we also explore similar concepts in scenes at RjDj – except the game is.. reality 🙂


  • @Robert: Right, but don't underestimate production pressures. Spore is indeed a good example: the game score they ultimately delivered was not as dynamic as the one described in technical talks earlier on. (That is, I don't think Eno/Jolly/McLeran got to do everything they wanted.)

    The first people who will tell you they'd love more room to innovate in game music is people making game music.

    Games have in fact gone from MIDI to audio. With the limitations – even in the next-gen era – placed on audio assets, that means you don't have complete freedom. But I still think there's something to learn. I don't think this video entirely represents the process; consider it a teaser while I talk to them more about what they've been doing.

  • <blockquote cite="I don’t think this video entirely represents the process; consider it a teaser while I talk to them more about what they’ve been doing.">

    I'm looking forward to this discussion continuing. Thank you Peter. I really appreciate where CDM (…both Music & Motion) focuses my attention – insightful, inspiring, and always thought provoking.

  • Vehical Driver

    @Robert Thomas

    Regardless of the technological sophistication behind it:

    The soundtrack for Red Dead Redemption sounded great, wasn't annoying or repetitive, fit the theme perfectly, and in general was an awesome game soundtrack.

    The 'soundtrack' to Spore, while using innovative technology and involving Brian Eno, was essentially a boring repetitive set of bloops that I shut off pretty quickly. While the synthesis potential might have been there, it wasn't used very effectively at all.

    What is interesting from a technological standpoint, isn't necessarily what makes the best game soundtrack.

  • @ Vehical Driver, yeah I would agree with you, your saying who cares how it was done as long as it's engaging and awesome., console's like ps3 and xbox 360 have alot of limitation's when it comes to game soundtracks in regards to memory, disk or download space, streaming ect.. and there are only really 2 heavy weight middleware engines that can handle doing generative music for games in large production environment FMOD and Wwise, even still, unless you as a composer/musician/producer learn some form of advanced programming to inter-react with those API's then the control of of your musical vision for these digital virtual worlds are still largely in the hands of non audio minded people.

    I think a real shift will happen when the tools mature to a point where a non coder composer can implement every aspect of audio integration…give it a few years and wait till the next gen of consoles and game tools, then it's going to be awesome !

  • J. Phoenix

    Nothing new here folks. Amon Tobin did this in Splinter Cell. Diego Stocco did it in The Conduit.

    LucasArts was doing this exact same thing with StarWars games even back to the 8 bit realm.

    Music that adapts to the actions of the situations and characters in them is nothing new, and neither is the use of stems rather than full arrangements.

    What is unique about this soundtrack is that its modeled on spaghetti westerns, and thus will have to involve more acoustic instruments, rather than acoustic/electro/digital instruments, like a sci-fi video game.

    That assertion isn't Peter's fault; its the fault of the over-enthusiastic copy writer Rockstar hired.

    Besides Grand Theft Horse, I did laugh at asking the Trumpeter to play chords. He just takes it right in stride.

  • Right, but in Rockstar's defense, remember that this video is made for people who aren't aware of any of these elements in game music. Anyway, yes, I'll work on getting us a more sophisticated look into the making of the soundtrack.

    @J. Phoenix – yeah, it's the mark of a good studio musician. 😉

  • Cool, yeah i am sure that there must be more going on that comes across in the video, looking forward to it.

  • J. Phoenix

    I do think perhaps non-sound/tech people will be more aware of the soundtrack's convolutions because of the acoustic aspect, over the usual sci fi or destruction noises. Maybe not.

    The strangest thing is, now I really want to play the videogame, but hadn't until it was on CDM. Perhaps even the merest mention on CDM causes enhanced promotional abilities, able to spark interest in the mundane! Just please, don't give a shout-out to Twilight anytime soon.

  • Ha, yes, the classic "CDM bump." 😉

    I expect my ability to impact Xbox title sales would be roughly equivalent to my ability to impact Twilight.

    I assume we'll have a little CDM multiplayer group going shortly…?

  • May never be possible, but I'd love to see a feature of this nature from Koji Kondo and the audio folks who work on Nintendo developed titles. I was very impressed by Mario Galaxy's soundtrack, which is highly orchestral but still seemed just as dynamic as back in the SNES glory days.

    PS2 game Shadow of the Colossus also had some wonderfully cinematic dynamism in its game soundtrack.

  • Michael Coelho

    Despite the fact that Rockstar didn't cover any new technological ground in producing the sound track to Red Dead Redemption, I did find this video to be of interest to me. The recording and instrument selection made this a worthwhile look at game music production. I'm not a huge western fan, but this video did spark some interest in this game for me.

  • deadredeyes

    Red Dead Redemption was one of the few games for me where I could leave the music (soundtrack) on. Most games have an overbearing / invasive soundtrack, or can be very distracting … so I'll usually turn the music off in favor of ambient noise. S.T.A.L.K.E.R is another game that comes to mind that has an excellent soundtrack.

    Sure, most will scoff at most of the music being in the same key or bpm's … but I think that the music works, and that's enough for me.