Percussa micro super signal processor

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.