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Myths, Mavericks, And Music Of Red Dead Redemption

[In this interview, Gamasutra contributor Jeriaska talks with Red Dead Redemption’s composers Bill Elm and Woody Jackson about developing the Western game’s sound, comparing the experience to working on film scores, and more.]

Recently Rockstar Games’ open-world Western Red Dead Redemption received a free update of downloadable content entitled “Myths & Mavericks.” The game’s musical score, by Bill Elm and Woody Jackson, previously won the Game Audio Network Guild’s top prize, among other awards.

Prior to writing the score for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 title, the musicians toured and wrote soundtracks to films together. Elm has played steel guitar, electric guitar and organ for his band Friends of Dean Martinez, while Jackson has performed on the Ocean’s 12 and Ocean’s 13 film scores.

For Red Dead Redemption and the Undead Nightmares expansion, the musicians recorded original pieces for cutscenes, the in-game score and instruments played by non-playable characters. More recently, Jackson provided incidental music for Rockstar’s L.A. Noire.

With the Game of the Year Edition released earlier this month, we caught up with the composers to hear their thoughts on the critical reception of Red Dead Redemption’s musical score.

How was it that you initially met Woody Jackson and began touring together as musicians?

Bill Elm: We met in ’95 while he was playing with a different band. We really connected on a number of our musical tastes. A couple of the guys who started the band Calexico were in the Friends of Dean Martinez, and at one point the guitar player couldn’t do some shows. At that point I called Woody and he filled in. He ended up joining the band for a couple years.

What is it about your background performing instrumental rock that you feel contributed to the sound of the Red Dead Redemption music?

Having put out eleven records over fifteen years definitely helped with knowing how to capture a mood. The Friends of Dean Martinez was inspired by Santo and Johnny, an instrumental band from the late ’50s known for their steel guitar accompaniment on “Sleep Walk.” That was almost mood music and it was an original inspiration for the band.

Oftentimes instrumental music will end up feeling overplayed. It can be overlooked that how much you treat the sound can be as important as the notes you play. That less-is-more attitude toward music is something that can take a little time to learn.

How would you say this experience writing music for a game compares with your previous work on film scores?

Working on films, you are scoring to a scene that starts in one place and ends in another. With this video game, someone might be riding their horse through a certain territory for half an hour.

Not knowing how long a given player will spend there, you have to be careful that the melody does not begin beating you over the head and that you don’t hear the loop coming back around after awhile.

Because those scene lengths are random, understatement becomes very important. The fact that this was a video game gave the music more room to ease the player into the scene, more room to exercise our own artistic vision.

At the start of development, were you discussing with Rockstar Games soundtrack supervisor Ivan Pavlovich about what kind of sound would characterize Red Dead Redemption?

There was a lot of time on the phone with Ivan, sending songs back and forth. The first six months of work I often traveled to Los Angeles. Initially I was hired for the game through working on Friends of Dean Martinez.

Woody and I had reconnected through a movie score a couple years before. He was just so perfect for the job and ended up contributing so much. What resulted was massive: something like two hundred songs recorded for the game.

How did you manage to lend thematic diversity to such a large amount of material while maintaining a tone that was appropriate to the setting of Red Dead Redemption?

That was something that was a bit daunting at first. It took a long time to figure out how the music was going to work in an interactive sense. The Mexico portion of the game was smaller and didn’t require as many signature sounds.

We struggled for some time to find other voices for the region beyond the trumpet, nylon guitar and accordion trio. A lot of the mariachi instruments that we tried sounded too close to the nylon guitar. Later we brought in a flute and ocarina player to fill out that sound.

Once we figured out how the stems would function, it became really fun to focus on creating. For the portions taking place in the north, we were allowed to get a bit more modern with sounds. There are so many instruments that express that sense of the frontier that when all was said and done, there were even more things that we still would have wanted to try.

When you finally had the chance to play the finished game, in what ways was it a different experience from watching a film that you had scored?

The most inspiring thing to me about playing through the finished game was listening to everything in sequence. Having mixed two hundred pieces of music, by that point I was hearing songs in the game that we’d done and wondering where they’d come from. My brain couldn’t even catalog everything that had been written for the game. Including Undead Nightmare, we did 24 hours of music, all in A Minor.

What was the reasoning behind sticking to a predetermined tempo throughout the score? Was it to allow for the crossing over of stems from various recording sessions?

In a game that’s totally controlled by the user, it helps to be able to drop one song over another fairly seamlessly at any given moment. There’s definitely some stuff in free time, but that tempo of 130, and half time at 65, seemed suited to much of the movement in the game.

There’s walking and running, the speeds of wagons and horses. All of those seemed to fit a certain tempo. With any scene that you’re scoring, you need to be aware of the pace.

When did work begin on the score for Undead Nightmare, the zombie expansion pack?

It started several months after we had completed work on the game, last July. The last things that we had done were the TV commercials back in April, as well as the soundtrack record. They had been recycling music for previous DLC content, and then the undead expansion came about.

It was interesting to have the chance to try it again, having played through the game and hearing it all in context. There was so much that we had wanted to try in the first game that had not been appropriate for one or another reason. Here we could use non-traditional instruments in places where we were not allowed to before. That acted as a starting point for the new score. The hardest part was that we only had about six weeks to do the whole thing.

What process led to selecting pieces from the lengthy game score to appear on the soundtrack record, which has since been released by Rockstar digitally, on vinyl and compact disc?

David Holmes is a DJ and a film composer and was the right man for the job of producing the record. Woody had worked with him on Ocean’s 12 and 13. By that point I was burnt out on mixing those two hundred pieces, so having a pair of fresh ears was really helpful. He built up the soundtrack album in Woody’s studio from the stems that had been recorded for the game.

Were you surprised by the degree to which the game and soundtrack album have received widespread recognition?

It’s nice to be recognized. I always thought the game would be good, but there was some uncertainty about how a Western would go over with a mainstream audience. That it won Game of the Year from a number of reviewers surprised me then, but it makes sense in that it was a really well crafted game.

There was something that I noticed during my first playthrough. Being from Tucson, Arizona, I immediately recognized they were missing the types of cactus that I was used to. But then I rode over the hill and all the stuff I knew they were missing was suddenly right there in front of me. It’s not a totally historically accurate game, but in many ways it’s very well done as a piece of fiction.

What are you currently focused on as a musician and would it interest you to write more music for video games in the future?

It would interest me. It makes me wonder, though, is there a “video game music sound?” Do people really want something different, or do they want more of the same?

I just finished a documentary score for the BBC, a film about women in prison in Afghanistan. It’s called “Injustice” and is sponsored by the EU. It has been especially fulfilling in that it’s allowed me to score scenes that I really care about.

This summer I’ll also be putting out a new record and doing my yearly Italian tour. I wasn’t able to go the past couple years because I was busy with Red Dead Redemption, so I’m looking forward to it this time.

The Red Dead Redemption red vinyl soundtrack album published by Rockstar Games
Red Dead Redemption takes place in 1911. Was it of interest to you to incorporate period music in the score?

Woody Jackson: I went back and listened to music from the period, and while there’s “Jimmy Crack Corn,” that’s basically it. We’re talking pre-showtunes. There was no “Western sound,” but ’60s psych has become the “Western sound.” If you listen to Spaghetti Westerns, none of that music was authentic to the period.

Morricone’s Western scores have informed numerous game soundtracks, from Wild Arms to Afro Samurai. You’ve mentioned that you own over 400 scores by Morricone. How has this fascination with the composer aided in developing a sound for Red Dead Redemption?

There were of a bunch of different references for Red Dead Redemption, though to me it’s hard not to have Morricone. I’m obsessed with that period from ’66 to ’71. The first trailer for the game came more from gritty, simple violin pieces, but over time it seemed appropriate to bring in psych guitars.

I found a German guitar at Ventura Music, here in Los Angeles, that had the sound and a perfect tremolo. Many guitars of the 1960’s had a bass cut switch which would cut all the bass out, giving it that anemic, thin sound. But the signal to noise ratio on those guitars can be a problem.

This German guitar somehow had more signal to noise, and it had that sound. I literally went home after finding the instrument and wrote the theme for Red Dead Redemption. There’s a certain beauty to having a job that allows for searching for a sound, finding it and using it.

Throughout the game, John Marston encounters musicians playing songs. Who is responsible for performing these in-game pieces?

You hear the piano a lot in the saloon, which is all by John Kirby, who has toured with Norah Jones and the Black Keys. I would write fifteen different solo pieces for each instrument, say for when you walk up to someone playing guitar in Mexico.

There is also Amir Yaghmai on the Stroh violin. When you encounter someone at a campfire and they start playing harmonica, that’s Tommy Morgan.

You collaborated with a world famous harmonica player on Red Dead Redemption. How did you come to meet him and form this working relationship over time?

Tommy and I met on Ocean’s 13 and we just hit it off. He has these awesome stories of playing on Sanford and Son. Most people ask him about the Beach Boys record Pet Sounds, because he played the bass harmonica on that, but I was more interested that he played with Barney Kessel.

One time on Ocean’s Thirteen, David [Holmes] played us this Frank Sinatra special and asked if Tommy could play like it. Tommy said, “I hope so! I played that!”

I’m also pretty sure he’s like an eighth degree black belt. The first day we met, I said, “Hey, Tommy, do you work out?” And his response was, “I do two hundred crunches a day so I can play this one harmonica piece like when I was twenty years old.” Otherwise, you run out of steam.

Most people don’t know he composed for the original Twilight Zone series. On the soundtrack of Red Dead Redemption, “Already Dead” is a piece that I had written fifteen years ago, and I asked Tommy to play on it. That was a thrill.

You can also be heard playing harmonica on the soundtrack. How much previous experience have you had playing the instrument?

I went to Virginia State University and my teacher for the first and only year was a saxophone and harmonica player. He was from Mississippi and grew up in a shotgun shack, and he showed me how to play blues harmonica. Chromatic harmonica is a whole other thing, though.

Tommy wouldn’t give me a lesson, but there was a guy named Dave Gage at McCabe’s Guitar Shop that showed me how to do it. One lesson and I drove home playing the theme from Midnight Cowboy on the chromatic harmonica. He’s a great teacher, but it takes a lot of practice and a lot of air to be proficient.

At the beginning of the Red Dead Redemption trailer, where John Marston is riding his horse, I’m playing Chromatic on that. I sent it to Tommy and asked, “What do you think?” And he said, “Don’t get too good!”He cracks me up.

Previously you’ve mentioned that there was a long period where you were focused intently on honing your craft. How did that lead to the creation of your guitorgan instrument, which you played on the Ocean’s films?

There was a six-year period of my life where I was searching for a new sound that no one ever had heard. I still haven’t found it, but I’m getting close. I’m actually a tinkerer by heart, and I came up with this idea of using a guitorgan: a guitar with an organ built into it.

I’m really good at fixing things, almost in a savant sense. While I was doing tech support for Mellotron out here on the West Coast, a Chamberlin remote keyboard showed up for sale, shredded, with solenoids like a player piano. It was just the thing I was looking for. It was like a big tape cassette player and it took me a month to untangle. The 35-note three-quarter-inch tape would shuttle back and forth and get all knotted.

It used a 24-volt, 10-amp trigger for the electro-mechanical keyboard, and I would watch plastic melt while I touched it to this exposed three-quarter-inch tape. It was pretty dangerous, like the game Mouse Trap but with high voltage. I wanted to make it so that when I press a note on the guitar, it would trigger the Chamberlin, without me getting electrocuted.

I found this guy in Ireland who did midi-to-voltage relays to send me a kit. He told me people used them to set off fireworks, and I think there was some sort of military application because he’s not allowed to do it anymore.

That all led to my having this remote controlled solenoid one-man band. When I started working with David Holmes, Ocean’s 12 was the first soundtrack I played on with the Chamberlin guitorgan get-up. Later I used two of them on Ocean’s 13 and a lot of David’s stuff.

How did creating this unique sound of the guitorgan contribute to the music style heard on Red Dead Redemption?

I used it mainly on the low drone parts on Red Dead Redemption. I would pitch the notes down two octaves, with a DC motor giving me not only thirty seconds of playing time, but also the most amazing sound. The best thing about the instrument is its limitations. The guitorgan is so hard to play that what you do play really has to be pure and mean something.

This guitar with a tape-replay keyboard attached is solenoid activated, like a player piano. There are 35 notes on a Chamberlin, so there were 35 relays, just like in a pinball machine. When I play it, it sounds like a pinball machine and lights up, too. It’s really kind of comical.

What was your approach to writing for the zombie sidestory Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare?

Years ago Money Mark, the keyboard player, turned me on to this sampler called the SP-1200 by E-mu Systems. It’s how all the beats were done in the early days of hip-hop. It only has ten seconds of sampling, that you span over eight pads, and it’s the dirtiest, coolest thing that’s super easy to use. What I did was take all the original Red Dead Redemption instrumental recordings and pitched them down to make all the beats. I was, in essence, sampling myself.

Undead Nightmare was going to be like a zombie movie from the ’80s, and I could do so many things that were crazier than the original game. As a composer, I really loved the opportunity to rip up everything I did before and reassemble it again. Afterward I gave that music to Bill to mix before going on tour for a month in the States and Japan with Vincent Gallo. By the time I got back, it was in the can.

How would you describe working with David Holmes again, this time on the soundtrack album?

It’s nice to have a friend come in on a project. I asked him to produce the soundtrack to Red Dead Redemption because it was not that far from the ’60s style music that we had worked on previously. It was just me and him going through terabytes of music. Now there’s a double vinyl album that looks cool and sounds cool.

The response to Red Dead Redemption has been enormously positive. What aspect of the score are you most pleased with on a personal level?

Having finished it. If you donʼt finish anything, it never has the chance to exist.

[This article is available in Italian on Images courtesy of Rockstar Games. For more information on Red Dead Redemption, see the official website. For information on the soundtrack albums, visit the Rockstar Warehouse.]
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