Riffing on Tolkien: The Conceptualization, Production, and Dissemination of Music in The Lord of the Rings
November 12, 2003 Page 1 of 3
For Vivendi Universal Games' Lord of the Rings titles, which include Middle-Earth Online, War of the Ring, The Hobbit, and Fellowship of the Ring, the mandate was to create music that would approach Tolkien's idealized descriptions, music that would represent the relentless pursuit of quality evidenced in his books and that would also bind an entire series of games together over time and across multiple developers, composers, and platforms. I'll talk about creating an authentic music style guide for the franchise, producing high-quality music assets, and managing an innovative music implementation system at both the publisher and developer levels.
The Tolkien works are highly esteemed by millions of readers across the globe. For the fantasy genre faithful, the Lord of the Rings series nearly approaches canon. Daring to mingle our own mortal efforts with those of Tolkien was a risky venture and not a quest for the superficially inclined. This music needed to be drawn from the very pen of Tolkien's writings, ringing of truth to anyone familiar with its pages. The only way to avoid flaming out in the fires of Mount Doom was to know the literature completely, inside and out.
Thus it was that, over the course of five years, I logged hundreds of hours researching and annotating Tolkien's books for everything they had to say about music. I found passages describing specific musical instruments used by the various races. I found information about vocal tone qualities and inferred vocal ranges for the races of Dwarves, Hobbits, Elves, Men, and even monsters. I found more than 60 different songs in the books and studied them all, including song forms and styles. It was fascinating to read about the impact of music on characters, traits, and even the environment. As a result, my copies of the literature are dog-eared, underlined, cross-referenced, and yellowing - and not just from the gaggle of Post-It notes protruding from the pages.
Chance Thomas contributed to a number of current and upcoming Vivendi-Universal games, including War of the Ring, The Hobbit, Fellowship of the Ring, and Middle-Earth Online.
From these notes, I created a Tolkien Music Style Guide to offer direction to the many composers who would be working with me on this game series. The style guide defines a specific palette of musical instruments for each race based on actual references in the text. It identifies specific voice types and ranges for each race, also based on references in the text. The underscore for each race is given harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic guidelines inferred from references in the text. In addition, there are sections in the style guide discussing production quality standards, music design matrices, implementation alternatives, music delivery specifications, and much more.
For example, both Elves and Dwarves are known to play the harp. But unlike Elven harps, Dwarven harps are "strung with silver." We represent this in our scores with a rare wire-strung harp, recorded especially for our LOTR series by sample maestro Gary Garritan. As another example, Hobbits' music is voiced by Celtic ensembles, based on the reference that Hobbits play "pipes and flutes." But they also played "horns and trumpets." You'll find them all in our Hobbit tunes. Also, Dwarves are reported to play "clarinets" and "viols as big as themselves," which we have also reflected authentically in our scores.
The string section. Since the recordings would be used in future games, different sections were isolated and recorded separately.
A quick story from the development of The Hobbit (Christmas 2003, all console platforms) is illustrative. Composers Rod Abernethy and Dave Adams had been creating a wonderful collection of music to underscore Bilbo's adventures in Hobbiton. Almost everything was in complete harmony with the Tolkien Music Style Guide. But one piece of music seemed a little out of character. The arrangement was laced with marimba, a very cool instrument but decidedly out of place. Referencing the style guide I told the composers, "You see, there are no marimbas in The Shire!" There was a brief moment of silence, after which we all broke into laughter. The moment was comical in its self-importance, but the composers did make the change, and our adherence to the style guide successfully preserved a higher degree of authenticity in the score.
games served by the Tolkien Music Style Guide include War of
the Ring (Christmas 2003, RTS for PC), Middle-Earth Online
(Christmas 2004, MMO for PC), The Treason of Isengard (recently
cancelled), The Fellowship of the Ring (2002, consoles and
PC), and several unannounced titles currently in development for
console and PC.
One of the most important recommendations in the Tolkien Music Style Guide was that a series of main themes be written to reflect the essence of each key race in the story - Elves, Dwarves, Men, Hobbits, and the races of evil, represented by Sauron. These main themes would then be used in every LOTR game to lay the thematic underpinning for each game score. The themes would serve as musical landmarks in our games, tying all the scores together with a series of common musical motifs and palettes. The task of composing these main themes fell to me.
I could have written 12 notes and said, "Here's the Dwarves' theme," but in keeping with VUG's vision that the series amount to a "leather-bound edition" quality, I proposed that each racial theme be showcased in an overture telling key parts of the LOTR story in music. Not only would this model the style guide's recommendations in a broad range of potential gameplay situations, but it would also provide a plethora of multiple-utility music assets. These assets include dozens of high-quality music cues to implement directly in each game score, sectional stems (choir, strings, brass, and woodwinds) from the live recording sessions for integration in other composers' scores, MIDI files to start each composer on the right track, and feature-length tracks appropriate for a music CD. To my knowledge, planning such a detailed musical framework in advance for an entire series of games has never been done like this before. VUG approved the main themes as outlined, and we were off to the races.
As an example, let's look at the structure for the Elves' overture. This piece of music comprises several movements that showcase our four main Elven themes. The opening and closing movements, "From Across the Sea" and "Return to the Sea," give us a feel for the immortal, solemn, and sad nature of the Elves. The middle three movements underscore the Elven strongholds in Middle-earth - Rivendell, Lothlórien, and Mirkwood - and reflect what the books tell us about the Elves in each particular region.
The Tolkien Music Style Guide defines the augmented 5th as a harmonic signature for the Elves, and the classical harp as a primary Elven instrument. The entire Elves' overture is built upon these two constants, branching out with variations for each movement in ways that are completely unique and reflective of the various strains of Elvenkind.
In addition, each of the three middle movements shows two variations, which offer additional examples of Style Guide scoring. Thus, the yield from this single five-minute piece of music would be as follows:
- Eight examples of Style Guide scoring for the race of Elves.
- Five fully orchestrated PCM music cues for implementation directly in a game score .
- Dozens of sub-mixed music cues (harp, strings and voice, woodwinds and psaltry, and so on) from each movement for implementation directly in a game score.
- The source MIDI file for supporting composers to use as a starting point for their own scoring efforts.
An adventurous overture for music lovers, which tells much of
the Elves' story.
See the sidebar below to hear some samples.
This project was innovative and efficient music design at a global level. In order to ensure the broadest possible appeal and safeguard against my own potential biases, I composed the five thematic suites in cooperation with our developers, VUG management, and the other Tolkien directors. I sent everyone an MP3 of each draft and invite commentary, and many good suggestions came in. Kristofor Mellroth, an audio engineer at Surreal Software (Treason of Isengard), suggested we use some of the Black Speech in Sauron's theme. Chris Pierson, one of the designers at Turbine Entertainment (Middle-Earth Online), suggested specific lines of Dwarvish for the battle at Helm's Deep. Daniel Greenberg, our creative director, helped steer me toward a better feel for Mirkwood. Even Vijay Lakshman, one of the VPs at VUG, got into the act, suggesting I beef up the drums in the Dwarves' theme. It was a total team effort, and the end result was a collection of compositions we could all feel very good about. Time to move into production.
Music Samples From LOTR
Of the Dwarves (1.3MB)
Free Peoples of Middle-earth (1.4MB)
For the Race Of Hobbits (2.6MB)
Dwarves' Theme (2.5MB)
For The Race Of Men (2.3MB)
For The Race Of Elves (2.8MB)
Producing the Themes
There was never any question in my mind that we would record the themes with as many live components as possible, striving for the highest possible quality standard. We simply had no other choice. Tolkien's conceptualization of music was too idealized. He talks of musical instruments "of perfect make and enchanting tones." He describes singing as "clear jewels of blended word and melody." He refers to "power" in old songs, and even ascribes the ultimate creative power to music from the gods.
In addition, we had to consider the level of quality apparent in Tolkien's writings. Careful attention to detail, painstaking effort in choosing words, great skill in painting verbal images of beauty and artistry, and a tireless thoroughness evidenced in all his books. It was clear that we must hold to the highest possible standards of excellence for our themes. And that meant finding a great orchestra, choir, and ancient acoustic instrumentalists.
There are dozens of orchestras around the world, but only a handful whose musicians have significant experience with film, game, or television scores and whose facilities are suitable for recording. I quickly narrowed my list down to four - The Hollywood Symphony, The Northwest Sinfonia, The Utah Film Orchestra, and the Prague Philharmonic.
The L.A. group is the most experienced and claims "the best players in the world." But they were the most expensive, even with the new AFM agreement negotiated by G.A.N.G. My recording budget would have disappeared all too quickly. Scratch.
The Prague Philharmonic was the least expensive. I could have recorded there all day every day for weeks. But to my ears, their performances come off sounding sharp, and their recorded sound has a brittle edge that I find aesthetically unappealing. Scratch.
That left Seattle and Salt Lake City. Seattle's musician-per-hour rate is $55. Salt Lake's is $50. Seattle's Bastyr Church and Studio X are both more expensive than Salt Lake's L.A. East Chapel, which goes for $125 an hour. Both orchestras have tons of experience recording for media. Both groups have their share of good and bad stories to be told. I had recorded in Salt Lake City previously with good results, so in the end I went with the cost savings and experience. I chose Salt Lake City.
Nothing focuses your attention quite like hundreds of dollars falling into the abyss every minute a large group of musicians is in the studio. And yet, nothing gives such a sick feeling as missing an ever so slightly out-of-tune phrase that could have been fixed with one more take. That is why producing a live recording is such a balancing act. On one side you have aesthetics: timing, tuning, dynamics, all those elusive ingredients that make emotive magic. On the other side there's the budget: there is only so much money, and if you go over in one area, you generally must cut somewhere else. Under the incredible pressure of the moment, making those decisions well is the key to effective live orchestral production.
The Utah Film Orchestra was selected for the LOTR soundtrack.
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