An Interview with Mikael Karlsson
Mikael Karlsson is the composer for the recently released Battlefield: Bad Company. Mikael's known in New York's concert halls and orchestras as a rising star of modern composition, and his sounds have set the mood in a number of films, including Bruce LaBruce's Otto; or, Up with Dead People. He is a co-founder of Please MusicWorks LLC in 2003.
Mikael Karlsson gives a fresh perspective for Battlefield: Bad Company, his attempt at producing a game soundtrack, and if the quality of the music is any proof, let’s hope he'll work on many more. The composer was kind enough to share how a budding note-scribbler can make the jump from film composition to game composition, the experience of working on Battlefield: Bad Company, and how violinists would assault each another with just a fit of burning rage and their violin bows for armament.
Game Revolution: How does composing for a game differ from composing for a film?
Mikael Karlsson: The obvious difference is that a video game has many possible sequences of action before you get to one of the many possible endings. It’s a mobile narrative, and the music has to be written accordingly. You either write music that keeps a very low profile, so that the sequence of cues doesn’t matter, or you make sure that the cues are very moment-specific, so that they don’t rely on a certain preceding or following circumstance.
In-game music is usually of the former kind, and I’m not a huge fan of it. Imagine that you are running toward a bridge that is about to explode. Most games will have an “action bubble” that activates an action music cue once you get close enough to the bridge, since it is assumed that you will cross the bridge. But what happens if you turn around when you’re almost at the bridge? What if you suddenly feel like having a sandwich and some tea under a tree, far away from the bridge? Usually the music just whimpers and disappears. The music response in such a scenario did in no way correspond to the way that the action unfolded. It tricked you, and it misguided your emotional response.
Conventional film scores are based on the idea that the action on-screen is a re-telling of “what really happened”, whether it’s actually true or not. Therefore, the score can “predict” the narrative and push the viewer closer to the story. A game will not be able work that way until we find a way to predict the decisions made by the human that is in charge, in front of the screen, with the controls in his or her hands.
Therefore, there is no score whatsoever during the battles in Battlefield. There is instead a radio (with music channels) that provides music in the tradition of “source music”. It makes sense that it’s there, because it COULD be there, if you were in the vehicle in the middle of the battle.
Stefan Strandberg at DICE, who made the initial connection with Please MusicWorks (my team), never liked the idea of in-game music, and I think that disposition is a good one.
The idea of a “film score” during the action provides other problems too. A film is a passive-viewer experience. You don’t get to decide anything as an audience, so the music only has to prettify the images. A game is interactive and doesn’t need to feel saturated and complete, since the player needs to supply input to the given material.
This goes for the soundtrack as well. If there’s an intense real-time battle going on with all the sound design and effects that are involved, there’s no real need for music. We want to feel those sounds, and a blaring score on top of all of the booms and bangs would only be in the way.
The people at DICE/EA have pushed the envelope further with the sound design, and you’ll see when you play it that there is music where music is warranted, and when the action is high enough, there is no score at all.
GR: What approaches or techniques did you need to adopt in order to get the right sound?
MC: Well, the right sound for Battlefield: Bad Company is “massive and exciting”, right? The orchestral cues all have a very large percussion section added, and it didn’t hurt to have 70 of the best freelance instrumentalists from all the big ensembles in New York to work with. I remember being in the studio, just standing there in front of the orchestra thinking, “Damn, this doesn’t need anything added to it… they sound HUUUUGGGEEE!!!”
Luckily, Tobias Wagner (music producer) and Silas Brown (audio engineer) knew better. We were mixing down 156 tracks for the main orchestral cues at one point, and worked endlessly to make them really punch you in the face without losing the sense of dynamics and “air” that we know and love from conventional classical recordings.
The string quintet part of the score was recorded with the microphones so close that they were basically sitting on top of the instruments. We wanted an extremely crisp sound, using the grit and the wonderful tone color of aggressive strings. These already punchy recordings were then given even more oomph through compression and all that sweet stuff that we do in post, which were all carefully measured by Silas.
GR: Were you heavily constrained by how the music was supposed to sound, or were you given a free hand?
MC: The sound was developed over time, but yes, there was an initial idea about the sound and the specific chamber strings that were used. I wouldn’t call that a constraint, though, since there is so much you can do with that ensemble.
Stefan Strandberg, sound designer at DICE, knew that he wanted cellos and percussion, and the rest was up to me and Tobias to figure out. That’s a pretty liberal instruction, so I never ever felt constrained, even though that instruction meant that I wasn’t able to go and write a banjo sonata for the score.
GR: What steps did you take to augment Battlefield: Bad Company's soundscape?
MC: One crucial step: I stayed the hell away from all that.
GR: Did you draw any inspiration or guidance from the music of other games?
MC: I learned what NOT to do while studying other games (I won’t name names) in the same genre. Most of them are flowing over with string pads that loop and mix with other “layers” of music as you move through some given landscape, and at best I felt horribly stalked by Enya’s kid brother and his evil Roland MC-202.
GR: Aw, why not? Come on, one or two names couldn't hurt. Hell, I'll happily supply a few for ya…
MC: Hey, I’ll offer up some names if you tell me which of your co-workers you think are real idiots.
GR: Touché. This makes me curious… if two violinists were to duel with their bows, would they tend to adopt more of a saber style, or would they go for the more balanced forms of an épée style?
MC: I think they are saber stylists at heart. And they would definitely go for the eyes, those cunning bastards!
GR: What advice would you give to aspiring game composers?
MC: Work with any good project that you can get your hands on, prove your talent, and realize that your ego has to go; especially if you find the right people, trust them, work with them always and take advice from them.
Don’t waste your time on projects that you don’t like, particularly if you’re not getting paid in diamonds and pearls. Make sure to keep nurturing your artistic side. Keep side projects, feed your musical mind constantly, and stock up on coffee.
Also get out of your mom’s basement. Sunlight is good for you.
Truly a man after my own heart.